An Interview On Adoption

Below is an interview I did with Dan Cruver in 2008.


BY DAN CRUVER Published Jul 14, 2008

1. What do you cherish most about the doctrine of adoption?

There are three things that should be mentioned. First it is the God by whom we have been adopted that makes adoption significant. The God who adopted us is the God who made all that is (Gen 1:1-3; John 1:1-3) and who, by the power of his will and grace, redeemed his people out of sin and bondage (Exod 20:2).

Second, we should remember that spiritual adoption is a significant truth embraced and confessed by the Reformed churches. It is expressed either implicitly or explicitly in our Reformed confessions and it underlies much of what is confessed by the Reformed churches even if the language of adoption is not used explicitly.

For example, the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) uses the truth that we are “also the children of God” as the basis for a question about Christ’s sonship. Though Christ “alone is the eternal, natural Son of God” we are “children of God by adoption, through grace, for his sake” (Q. 33). The Belgic Confession, (1561), speaks the same way (Art. 34). This doctrine is significant enough to the Reformed Churches that it merited an entire, albeit brief, chapter in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) where we confess that those who are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone (WCF ch. 11) are to rest in the fact that we are also “partakers of the grace of adoption.” As a consequence of this free gift we, who are not God’s children by nature, are treated as if we are natural children, as it were. We have the “liberties” that belong to God’s children, we have his name, we have his Spirit, and we have free access to the Father. We are “pitied, protected, provided for, and chastened by him as a Father, yet never cast off, but sealed to the day of redemption.” In Christ it is as if we have done all that Christ did for us and, on that basis, we are heirs of all his promises.

Finally, the doctrine of adoption is a biblical doctrine. The Apostle Paul teaches explicitly that those who have true faith (and by that faith) are united to Christ (Gal 2:20; WCF ch. 12). By virtue of that union we have “received the Spirit of adoption as sons.” Therefore, we have the privilege of intimate, personal communion with the Creator and Redeemer God. The Spirit of God testifies to us that we, who believe, are God’s children (Rom 8:15-17). Paul teaches that we have been redeemed by grace alone, through faith alone “so that we might receive adoption as sons.” (Gal 4:5). Indeed, we who believe have been “predestined…for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will….” (Eph 1:5).

2. Do you believe that the doctrine of adoption has received its due attention within the history of the church?

Probably not, but I worry a little, in reaction to that neglect, that, in our time, we tend to overemphasize the relational aspects of the faith. We live in a time when “legal” ideas and categories are not in favor whereas “relational” categories are very much in vogue. There is a strong tendency in our culture and in our churches to set the one against the other. The problem is that the turn to relational categories (over against the legal) defies reality and Scripture. There is no good reason to set one against the other.

Those who are adopted are those who have been justified. God’s declaration of our righteousness in Christ is the legal basis for our adoption. Think of how husbands and wives relate. This is a most intimate or personal relationship that is based on a prior legal relationship. The words “husband” and “wife” imply a binding, legal relationship between persons that can only be broken by the gravest of sins and by legal action. That fact doesn’t make the marriage less relational, personal, and intimate.

The same is true with adoption. It is an eminently legal and personal, relational act. In adoption, someone chooses to incorporate someone else who, by nature, is not part of one’s family, into one’s family. Because adoption is a legal act, it has standing, it has permanence, and it has a firm basis. Because it is a personal act, it is not a mere “transaction.” By definition, a personal act entails a person coming to know and entering into deeper relations with another person. Adoption is a wonderful metaphor for God’s gracious relations toward us and more than a metaphor, it is a fact of the Christian faith.

3. Do you see a difference between the apostle John’s model of entrance into God’s family and Paul’s?

Each Biblical writer has his own favorite ways of speaking. Nevertheless, there is a strong affinity with John 1:12 where John uses the same sort of language as Paul. John’s “sphere of discourse,” as Prof. Murray used to say, is strikingly similar to Paul’s in Romans 8 and Ephesians 2. We see the same ways of speaking about our being Christ’s children in 1 John 3:1-2.

4. Paul’s references to adoption (Eph. 1:4-5; Rom. 9:4; Gal. 4:4-5; Rom. 8:15-16; 8:22-23) seem to serve as markers along the path of redemptive history. Would it be a fruitful exercise to view redemptive history (i.e. creation, fall, redemption, consummation) through the lens of the doctrine of adoption?

Yes, certainly. Scripture certainly uses this sort of language about Israel’s temporary adoption as the national people of God. Think of Deuteronomy 7:6-11. The covenant Lord, Yahweh, has adopted, as his peculiar people, Israel. He redeemed them out of Egypt and has delivered them into the Promised Land. There is one caveat about this analogy. The Lord entered into a special, temporary relationship with national Israel as the visible, institutional people of God. Not every one of those who were in that national people, who were part of this outward adoption, enjoyed all the benefits of that adoption. Paul makes this distinction quite clear in Romans 2:28 and Romans 9:6. Not all Israel is Israel. There is an “inward” Israel, united to Christ by grace alone, through faith alone and an “outward” Israel, who are members of the national covenant, who nevertheless, did not receive all the benefits of Christ because they were “were not united by faith with those who listened” (Heb 4:2).

5. What difference should the doctrine of adoption make in a Christian’s spiritual life on a daily basis?

Like all gospel truths, this one should form the basis for our Christian life. In Christ we are to die daily, moment-by-moment to sin and live daily, moment-by-moment to Christ. This touches on the choices we make, the things we love, the things that occupy our minds and energies. Because our gracious Father, in Christ, by the Spirit, adopts us we can and ought to live in that grace. If we had the consciousness of having once been orphans and having been brought into the household of the King, I think we would, to that same degree, lives worthy of the grace (Eph 4:1) that we have received.

6. More and more couples are considering adopting transracially adoption. What might the doctrine of adoption contribute to our thinking on the issue of transracial adoption?

At the risk of being trite and obvious, what matters in adoption is that we are adopted! It is true that those who are adopted may come from different backgrounds, and that is not an insignificant fact. The importance of our background, however, pales before the fact that we, who were once strangers and aliens (Eph 2:19), have now been included into the royal household. It was in view of these profound truths that Paul declared that in Christ, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). This glorious truth does not obliterate our humanity. We all have a history but that history does not trump God’s unmerited favor. The fact that we are “in Christ” is the first and most important fact that defines our identity. Our adoption practices ought to reflect this fact. Just as Christ has adopted us from every nation, tribe, and tongue (Rev 5:9) and therefore, having made a wise decision, ought to reflect that sort of love. Our children are members of the covenant of grace, not by solely in virtue of our birth, but by virtue of the fact that we are included in the house. In this regard, we should probably pay closer attention to the way Scripture regards the members of “households.” It was not only children who received the sign and seal of covenant initiation, but also those who were in the household and this was done without regard of national or racial origin.

7. What implications might the doctrine of adoption have for Christians who have adopted or are interested in adopting a child?

Though there are great analogies between adoption in this life and the adoption that we enjoy in Christ, there are differences. Human adoption is an act of love but it means inclusion of sinners into a fallen human family. We sin against our adopted children and they sin against us. We are joint heirs of grace. Thus, human adoption, as distinct from divine adoption, is not a panacea. It is a starting point, a way of thinking about our children and us. Those Christian parents who adopt children do so as those who themselves have been adopted. In other words, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). All parents, whether adoptive or natural parents, need to remind themselves of the fact that they were are recipients of grace with their children. This consciousness of our own sin and of the grace of Christ should color our relationships with our spouses and our children.

What Pastors Shouldn’t Tell Their Wives: The Danger Of Too Transparency

Megan Hill, a Presbyterian pastor’s wife, has been writing about what pastors tell their wives and what they should tell them. I can answer that question in one word: nothing. By nothing, I mean “no confidential information.” A pastor may tell his wife what he would tell other members of the congregation but no more. Of course he may ask for prayer. Of course he may tell his wife that he had a tough counseling session or a tough session meeting but he shouldn’t say with whom or “confidential” becomes a little leaky.

I understand that we live in an age of hyper-transparency, that many live in in full view of the digital public via social media. That reality, however, is no argument for ministers giving in to the temptation to share with their wives what they learn in session (consistory) meetings or in counseling sessions. What happens in session (consistory) stays in session. What happens in the counseling room, unless it involves a criminal matter or needs to go to the session, stays in the counseling room. It certainly does not go to the pastor’s wife.

This is not sexism. It’s mercy and wisdom. The pastor’s wife is not called to the pastoral ministry. She is not an unofficial co-pastor. She isn’t ordained (or shouldn’t be). Her vocation relative to the visible church is to be faithful to the due use of ordinary means, to love her husband and family. That’s it.

There are five reasons why the pastor’s wife does not need to know what the pastor knows.

1) Few things are as difficult in ministry as knowing what pastors (and elders) know. I have seen the burden add lines to the faces of pastors and ruling elders. Watch a newly elected ruling elder’s face the day before he takes office for the first time and the days after. There is often a discernible change. Pastors are called to carry this burden and to lay it before the Lord and to trust him with it. Those who learn to file it somewhere survive and those who do not, for whom it remains in the forefront of their consciousness, they will not likely survive pastoral ministry. The pastor’s wife is not a ruling elder or a minister. She’s not called to carry that burden.

2) It’s better for the pastor that his wife not know. When a pastor comes home from a difficult house visit (huisbezoek in Nederlands) it’s a great relief to see his wife, who is blissfully unaware of what just transpired. If she knows then he never really leaves it behind. There is no refuge. The session meeting just changed locations. That doesn’t help him. He needs her, sola gratia, to be free to love him and the rest of the congregation in the freedom of not knowing. He needs that more than he needs an ally against that obstreperous session member or that seemingly intractable counseling case.

3) It’s not good for the pastor’s family to know everything that is going on. One leak may lead to others. If the pastor’s wife is not called to know and carry this certainly the children are not equipped to deal with it. Leave them out of it. There is a reason that pastor’s kids can grow up bitter toward the church. Pastor’s need to resist the temptation to find vindication for themselves by unloading their burdens on their children.

4) Her view of the congregation isn’t trained or freighted or weighted down with the knowledge of what is happening in each family behind the pleasant facade. That’s as it should be. She shouldn’t know. She should be free to go on as if nothing happened. That’s important. There is grace. People do repent and move forward. Sure, everyone in the congregation can see the turbulent waters but they can’t all see what’s beneath. She’s free to be a prayer partner a and friend in a way that perhaps the pastor cannot be. Knowing what the pastor knows does not enable her to be unfettered in her life as a member of the congregation.

5) It’s not good for the congregation. Trust is a difficult thing to foster and it is easily damaged. It may take years for a congregation to trust the minister enough to confide in him and to seek from him the help they need. A careless word to his wife may destroy all that in a moment and that trust may never be restored. The members of the congregation should not look at her and wonder what she knows about them.

Please don’t misunderstand. The pastor is not a priest. He must keep the confidences that he may but when it comes to criminal matters or those things that must go to the session then he his bound to do it. Nevertheless, most things should be kept in confidence and those right between the minister’s ears. The good news is that, as the years pass, many of them just sort of slip away into the ether. I know that I’ve heard many things but right now, as I write, I can’t remember many of them. I can see faces and tears but no particulars come to mind. It’s a mercy.

By the Christ’s undeserved favor, with the Spirit’s help, and in the Father’s love it can be done. It must be done. It’s a matter of divine vocation. It’s a matter of integrity. God has called his ministers to hear confessions, to offer reminders of forgiveness, and counsel but the same is not true of every member of the congregation and that is what the pastor’s wife is: another member of the congregation. Perhaps this is a practical argument against every member ministry?

It seems worth spending a moment thinking about the idea of office. In this sense it refers to functions and particularly to duties. Used in this sense, the Oxford English Dictionary defines it thus:

A position or post to which certain duties are attached, esp. one of a more or less public character; a position of trust, authority, or service under constituted authority; a post in the administration of government, the public service, the direction of a corporation, company, society, etc.

One of the major assumptions behind the post that needs to be explained is that there is an important distinction to to be made between persons and office. When a person becomes a lawyer or a minister, that person has a double identity. He is no longer a merely private person. He has a private life but when he acts in his office he is not acting in a private capacity but in a public or official capacity and in that capacity there are limits imposed on him by his office.

Consider a governor. As a private person he might well ignore insults and even threats but insofar as he holds a public office he is not free to exercise that sort of discretion because, in his office, he is no longer acting as a private person but as a public person. As governor he does not belong to himself. He belongs to the people of the state and he obligated not merely to himself and to his family but to the entire state and to the laws of the state. Thus, if someone makes a threat to the welfare of the state he must act in his office.

Ministers and elders hold an office. Insofar as they are officers in the visible church their duties, a trust, ministerial authority (i.e., they serve the Lord Jesus Christ), and they conduct themselves under a divinely “constituted authority.” Because they hold office in the visible church, ministers are not free to regard themselves as private persons. What they hear or learn in their capacity as pastors belongs to the office not to the person. That information is like the official papers of the congregation. When a pastor leaves the church he doesn’t take the office papers of the congregation. He leaves them with the church because they don’t belong to him but to the office.

This distinction explains why Reformed churches speak about the preaching and ministry the way we do. We usually describe the speaking that unordained seminary students do on the Lord’s Day as “exhorting.” We describe what ordained ministers do as “preaching.” That’s why licentiates are allowed to exhort but not to preach or pronounce the benediction. Those functions belong to an office not to a person.

Confidential information that is disclosed in a counseling session or in a session (consistory) meeting or in an executive session of an ecclesiastical assembly belongs to the office not to the person. It isn’t his private possession. He only knows it by virtue of his office. He wouldn’t know if apart from the office. It’s not his to share outside the office.

As I tried to suggest above, the pastor’s wife is not the pastor. There is no office of pastor’s wife. Her vocation is to love and support her husband. That support of her husband does not require her to know those confidences that belong to the pastor’s office any more than the confidences of the judge’s chambers belong to the judge’s wife.

Of course, the distinction between person and office entails a distinction between public and private. The pastor, like other officers, has both aspects to his life. When he speaks out of his office he speaks in a public capacity. By public, I do not mean “civil” or tax-funded, but public as distinct from private and personal. What he says is not his private opinion but the Word of God as understood and confessed by the church. Of course he has a private life but there must be a clear separation between what he says as a public person and what he says as a private person. This doesn’t mean that he has two moral lives, a private and public but he does have two spheres of responsibilities under Christ’s Lordship and under God’s Word.

There is an ambiguity here. There is another sense of the word “private.” Thus far I’ve been writing of private as a synonym for “personal” or “not official.” The second sense of private refers to that which is no one else’s business. In this sense “public” means “that which is open to everyone.” These are important distinctions in an age that has all but lost them. This is particularly true for those generations that have grown up with the internet and smart phones, who live their private (i.e., that which should be kept secret) lives in the the digital public domain. It seems as if the very idea of “private” has been eroded. Ironically, this has happened at the same time we’ve become hyper-sensitive about “privacy” relative to sensitive information. It seems as if it’s not whether information that was once private will be public but who will make it so and to what effect.

The spirit of our age tends to erode the distinction between public and private, between personal and official, but for the well being of the church and her ministry its essential for them to be retained and, where these ideas have been lost, restored.

The essay first appeared, in 2013, on The Heidelblog.

How To Fence The Lord’s Table

After the a conference I received a question which asked essentially: whom should Reformed Churches admit to the Lord’s Table?

There are three basic approaches to fencing the table:

  • Open—Anyone who will, who professes faith in Christ, without regard to church membership, may come to the table.
  • Guarded—Anyone is a member of a particular sort of congregation may come to the table.
  • Closed—Anyone who is a member of our congregation or our denomination may come to the table.

I suppose that open communion is the dominant practice among American evangelicals. The only condition is profession of faith in Christ. I witnessed this during my years in broad evangelicalism. The assumption tends to be that the believer is the only person required to make an assessment of who should come to the table. In fairness, Paul does say, “Let a man examine himself” (or as the ESV has it: “Let a person examine himself” 1Cor 11:28) so there is an element of personal self-examination before coming to the table. The question is whether there is more than that?

The Reformed, Lutheran, and Roman traditions have said yes, there is more. The latter two traditions have practiced closed communion. One must be a Roman Christian in order to receive the consecrated and transubstantiated host from a Roman priest. In confessional Lutheran churches one must be a member of the denomination in order to commune. The assumption in a closed table is that the communicant has already professed faith and is eligible for communion.

The Reformed Approach: Guarding The Table
The Reformed approach historically has been to guard the table. Guarding or fencing means that there is more than one condition to communion. A person must profess faith in Christ and must examine himself but our understanding is that the Supper was instituted by Christ, to be administered in and by the visible church. Paul’s account of the institution and administration of the Supper says more than “Let a man examine himself.”

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.

The American assumption tends to be individualistic, that the Supper is primarily a private or personal matter between the communicant and his God. This assumption is grounded in the history of Pietism, which emphasized the personal and individual aspects of faith. American evangelicals tend to be influenced by the low-church tradition that de-emphasizes the visible, institutional church and has tended to view the Supper less as a means of grace, an instrument through which the Spirit operates to sanctify and strengthen, and more as an opportunity to remember Christ’s death and to assess one’s spiritual state.

The Reformed, in contrast, confess that the Supper is a sacrament instituted by Christ. It certainly entails remembering and honest self-assessment but it is more than that. Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 66 says:

66. What are the Sacraments?

The Sacraments are visible holy signs and seals appointed of God for this end, that by the use thereof He may the more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the Gospel: namely, that of free grace, He grants us the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life for the sake of the one sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the cross.

A sacrament, by definition, is a divinely-appointed sign and seal of the “promise of the Gospel: namely that of free grace, He grants us the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life for the sake of the one sacrifice of Christ…”.

So, for us, the Supper is more than a time to reflect and remember. Something else is happening. God is certifying that the promise preached in the Gospel is true. There is more.

75. How is it signified and sealed to you in the Holy Supper, that you do partake of the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross and all His benefits?

Thus: that Christ has commanded me and all believers to eat of this broken bread and to drink of this cup in remembrance of Him, and has joined therewith these promises: First, that His body was offered and broken on the cross for me and His blood shed for me, as certainly as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup communicated to me; and further, that with His crucified body and shed blood He Himself feeds and nourishes my soul to everlasting life, as certainly as I receive from the hand of the minister and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, which are given me as certain tokens of the body and blood of Christ.

The catechism affirms remembering but we also confess that “with His crucified body and shed blood He Himself feeds and nourishes my soul to everlasting life…”. The Holy Spirit accomplishes this feeding on the on the “crucified body and shed blood” mysteriously but it happens. In communion we are fed by more than bread, wine, and memories. We are fed by the “proper and natural body” and the “proper blood” of Christ (Belgic Confession, Art. 35).

Our understanding the Supper is that to “eat the crucified body and drink the shed blood of Christ” (HC Q. 76) means not only to “to embrace with a believing heart all the sufferings and death of Christ, and thereby to obtain the forgiveness of sins and life eternal” but the Supper is a way that the Spirit strengthens our union with Christ’s body. We look not only to the institution of the Supper as recorded in the gospels but to Paul’s explanation in 1 Corinthians 11, part of which says,

The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread

In other words, there is a communal aspect to communion. We come to the Supper not only as individuals but as members of a body which is not only an organism (Abraham Kuyper) but also an organization, to which our Lord Jesus gave the “keys of the kingdom” (Matt 16).

It is fine to say “I am a believer” but one must also say that to and in the visible, institutional church. Who is a believer? Is everyone who says, “I believe in Jesus” to be regarded as a Christian? Is that a sufficient profession of faith for the purposes of coming to the table?

The evidence in   1 Corinthians suggests no. The evidence in the early, post-apostolic, church suggests no. Catechumens preparing for communion for as long as three years (the length of the earthly ministry of Jesus before the institution of the Supper) before being admitted to the table.

This really comes down to the question: what is the church? Not every entity that gathers together and calls itself “church” is really a church. In Belgic Confession Art. 29 we say:

The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church—and no one ought to be separated from it.

So, when we think about who should come to the table we also ask, is this person a member of a church with the marks of a true church.

The Reformed church orders (church constitutions) reflect the churches’ attempt to synthesize the whole of biblical teaching and apply it to the life of the church in a given time and place. The most famous Dutch synod, of course, is the Great Synod of Dort (1618–19) but there were several synods before it, on which the Synod relied. According to the Synod of Emden (1571) only members of the Reformed churches were to be admitted to the table.

Synod of Dort (1574)

Art. 81. Whoever brings a valid certificate shall be admitted to the Lord’s Supper unless it was written a long time ago, in which case one must proceed as if there is no testimony. However, we deem it fitting and are inclined to accept rather than decline those whose piety has been attested either by a written or personal testimony.

The original practice of the Reformed churches was that one had a certificate of membership in a Reformed church. This was not a mechanical thing. The concern was not only membership but also piety and life.

The second half of Belgic Confession says:

As for those who can belong to the church, we can recognize them by the distinguishing marks of Christians: namely by faith, and by their fleeing from sin and pursuing righteousness, once they have received the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ.

They love the true God and their neighbors, They love the true God and their neighbors, without turning to the right or left, and they crucify the flesh and its works.

Though great weakness remains in them, they fight against it by the Spirit all the days of their lives, appealing constantly to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of the Lord Jesus, in whom they have forgiveness of their sins, through faith in him.

There was some struggle, however, in the Netherlands between confessionally Reformed churches and civil magistrates who were influenced by what we might call Erasmian pietism. Their interest was less in establishing a “true church” than in keeping the peace between the various groups and promoting a minimalist approach to Christianity that centered on religious experience. They were, in some respects, the forerunners of the modern evangelical movement. So the the “church laws” of the Province of Holland and Zeeland, 1576, written by order of the magistrates, loosened the restriction (art 71) imposed by Synod in 1574 in favor of private self-examination relative to “travelers” who are passing through.

Synod of Dort (1578) had to address the question of what to do with those who were influenced by the “biblicism” of the Erasmians and others?

35. Whether it is permissible to admit to the Lord’s Supper those who do acknowledge the Bible alone as God’s Word but will neither answer nor agree to answer the usual questions which are asked of those who go to the Lord’s Supper.

Answer: The churches shall maintain their usual custom of requiring confession of faith. Everyone is bound to give an account of is faith according to the teaching of Peter. It is also not fitting that a usual custom of the congregation should be changed for some particular reason.

The intent of the Reformed churches became clearer by 1581. Here the language that would be used by the Great Synod of Dort was adopted:

Synod of Middelburg (1581)

43. No one shall be admitted to the Lord’s Supper except one who, according to the custom of the church which he joins, has made confession of the Reformed religion, who has testimony of godly behavior, without which those who come from other churches shall not be admitted.

In other words, those who had evidence of membership in a Reformed church (objective) and an indicator of a godly walk (subjective) were eligible to come to the table. This same language of “confession of the Reformed Religion” and “godly conduct” was adopted by the Synod of den Hague/Gravenhage in 1586. The provincial synod of Middelburg and Zeeland, art. 51 restricted the supper to those who “have made profession of the Reformed faith” and have given proof of pious conduct. The church order of Utrecht (1612), s.v. “Concerning the Lord’s Supper”

III. Those who come from other places and want to be admitted to the table of the Lord shall first present a proper certificate of their earlier way of life to the pastor of the place where they desire to be admitted.

Thus, the practice of the Reformed churches had been established for forty years by the time the Great Synod of Dort met. Now, most of us think of the famous “Five Points” in response to the Five Points of the Arminians (1609) but synod did much more than that. They also established the pattern of Reformed practice that would be the pattern for the centuries after.

The Dort Church Order (1619), Art. 61 says:

61. Only those shall be admitted to the Lord’s supper who, according to the usage of the churches which they join, have made confession of the Reformed religion, together with having testimony of a godly walk, without which also those who come from other churches shall not be admitted.

The original Reformed practice then was to “guard” or “fence” rather closely. There were fewer Reformed denominations in the late 16th and early 17th centuries but they did have to address many of the same challenges that we do. There were other traditions in the Netherlands at the time the Reformed were working out their practice. They were particularly aware of the Anabaptists (whom they called “Baptists” in the 1570s—there was a strange case of a kidnapping in order to prevent an infant baptism! More on that in another post) and other competing groups. They were aware of the problem of people traveling through town and visiting and asking for communion. There are substantial continuities between their church life and ours.

Whom should Reformed churches admit to the table? If we ask those who gave to us our confession of faith and who set the pattern for our practice we should admit those who confess the Reformed faith and of who have testimony of a godly life. The objective evidence for the latter is that they are not under church discipline.

The Practice Of Fencing The Table
There is irony in fencing the Lord’s Table. What should be a joyous celebration, after due preparation of course, and a communion of believers with their risen Lord and with one another, is for ministers—particularly for church planting pastors—sometimes a moment of uncertainty. We live in a transient culture. We do not know who will be in the congregation when we step behind the table to read the form. We can’t anticipate who will appear in the congregation halfway through the service and appear at the table or expect to be able to commune (on the assumption of open communion).

There is anxiety too. Sometimes when the table is fenced, whether that is done in the foyer by elders or from the table by issuing a warning (see below), pastors worry that newcomers, who are likely unfamiliar with historic Reformed practice, will be offended and leave quickly after the sermon and before the administration of communion. More than one pastor has chased a visitor to the parking lot after a service but when it’s time for communion that can’t happen. Practically, fencing the table can seem like just another way small, struggling Reformed congregations remain small and struggling.

So, when Reformed churches fence the table it is an act of faith in the wisdom, providence, and grace of God. Pastors and elders (and the members) desperately want the lost to come to faith and we want the confused to come to the truth. We live in a culture that, at least touching the evangelical sub-culture, is largely shaped by assumptions that we do not share. Thus, there is often a culture shock for visitors who have a Christian background but who are unfamiliar with Reformed practice. “What do you mean I cannot come to the table? Are you saying that I am not a Christian?” It’s impossible to sort out these thorny questions in the foyer and especially when people are lined up and coming to the table or receiving a tray of elements as it comes by.

This is not just Reformed hyper-scrupulosity. I have seen families give communion to their young children or infants, on the assumption that what they do at home is appropriate for church. I have seen people come to the table who had no idea of was happening.

These sort of challenges have caused some to say, “Well, it is a fine old practice but we live in a new day and we need to adapt to the realities at hand. Better to err on the side of inclusion than exclusion.”

One can sympathize with this reasoning. The old Reformed practice does look a little Grinchly when compared to the apparently open and gracious invitation given in congregations that do not fence the table. We do not want to be pharisees chasing off the publicans because they are unclean or not like us. One can understand those congregations that emphasize that it is “the Lord’s Table” and say, in effect, “Let the Lord sort it out.” Yes, it is the Lord’s Table and he has instituted a church, given to her the keys, and biblical revelation about the administration of the table.

It is not really a matter of whether there will be conditions. Even those who practice open communion ordinarily require that one be baptized and make a Christian profession before coming to the table (although I have seen even those conditions discarded). It is not really a question of whether there are conditions or even, in that sense, whether the table is to be fenced (if there are conditions, then there is a fence) but only how high the fence, if you will.

Remember, there is jeopardy attached to the table. It is not a free-for-all. The supper is just as much a communal act as it is an individual act. The actions of some, in Corinth, had fatal consequences and that was bad for the entire body. If one of us suffers, we all suffer.

So, given our principles, what do we do? First, we must explain ourselves. We need to smile and say something like the following:

We love you and we love the Lord. If you profess faith in Christ we would very much like for you to come to the table if certain things are true of you. As we understand the Lord’s Table it is both personal and communal and therefore we believe that our elders have a responsibility before the Lord to administer the Supper carefully. The Lord’s Table is for believers who are members of congregations that have three marks: the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline.

If you are a member of a confessional Reformed or Presbyterian church we invite you to the table. If you do not know what this means please abstain from the table today and see me or one of the elders. We will be happy to talk and pray with you.

By this we are not saying that you are not a believer or that there are no other believers in the world. We know the gospel is preached elsewhere and we are thankful for this but we hope that you’ll respect our attempt to be obedient to God’s Word.

This certainly is not perfect language but it captures the essence of what I think we are trying to communicate. In my experience people without church backgrounds are not offended. They expect church to be religious and they expect a certain amount of order. The difficulty is with those Christians who assume autonomy relative to the visible, institutional church. There are those who profess faith but are united to no congregation or to a congregation that lacks the marks of a true church.

There are difficult cases. I have been asked about confessional Anglicans and Lutherans. I don’t know if the Reformed have ever spoken to either case explicitly but I’m still learning. The Dutch Reformed church orders help here. They do stipulate the “Reformed Religion,” which seems to mean, “the Belgic Confession” or its equivalent. If we exclude confessional Lutherans we should not expect them to be offended since they are familiar with closed communion. Someone from an Anglican congregation that confesses the 39 Articles might be admitted to the table. Church polity is not of the essence of the faith and there were three polities at Dort and Westminster. One difficulty is that the confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches (i.e., NAPARC) have no relation to the Anglican communions. Maybe the most difficult case is the question of Baptists who confess aspects of the Reformed faith. There is frequent interchange between Baptist and Reformed and Presbyterian congregations. If “Reformed Religion” stands for the Belgic (or its equivalent) that would seem to answer the question. A Baptist shouldn’t be offended since they don’t accept our Baptism so they are familiar with a degree of exclusion.

Second, it may help to do more than to fence the table at the table. Some congregations have elders in the foyer and even signs announcing that communion is being administered today and that visitors should speak with an elder before coming to the table. This is not always practical. Some congregations do not have enough elders to pray with the minister and greet visitors in the foyer. Others find this procedure a bit daunting. Those can be interesting conversations!

Third, there may be real wisdom in the old Reformed and Presbyterian practice of a certificate of membership or a token. The old Scottish Presbyterian practice was to require communicants to attend the preparatory service the week prior. There one was given a token that was to be returned the next week when one went to the table. In the case that a congregation administers the supper weekly (Calvin’s desired practice) then every Lord’s Day is a preparatory service and the token becomes less practical.

Fourth, a statement in the bulletin explaining the congregation’s practice will be most useful. It might be well to have an elder, if possible, in the foyer to speak with late comers (this might not be a problem everywhere but it’s an issue in California).

Fifth, there might be wisdom in adopting the practice of coming forward for communion. This seems to have been the dominant practice in the German, Dutch, and French Churches, as well as the Scottish Presbyterian Church. There is evidence in the Dutch Church Orders from the late 16th century that communion was sometimes distributed to the seated congregation, as is often done today, but that seems to have been the minority practice.

If people come forward to commune, in rows or in a moving line, or simply to collect the elements and to return to their seats to commune together—I have seen this done effectively—then there is a fencing that can yet take place at the table. Ministers have been known to discourage from communion those who should not come to the table (e.g., those who’ve not made profession of faith). If the elements are distributed to the seated congregation then there is little that can be done after the distribution.

This side of glory there is no perfect way to administer communion but as ministers and elders we have a duty to try to administer the Supper in a way that is edifying to the body and obedient to the Chief Shepherd of the Church to whom we must give account. We are men under authority. That is why we are called “ministers.”

May the Lord bless your administration of Holy Communion and may it be a true communion in the body and blood of Christ by the work of the Spirit through faith.

On Churchless Evangelicals

I was once a churchless evangelical. As a young Christian I attended a medium-sized (300 member) SBC (Southern Baptist) congregation for a few years without joining. It wasn’t really a problem. Of course they would like to have seen me baptized (as Baptists they did not recognize my baptism as an infant) but it wasn’t a “deal breaker.” In fairness to the congregation, I attended fairly regularly through high school but then my attendance started to lag.

There was a period, as I started to investigate aspects of Reformed theology, when I was “in between” congregations and I drifted. I attended worship services sporadically but was a member of no congregation. For most of my early evangelical existence and even as I began to become Reformed, I was a churchless evangelical. I considered that I was a member of the “invisible” church so I did not have to be a member of a visible congregation. There was even a notion that perhaps the visible church was for those who were less “spiritual.”

In the years since joining St John’s Reformed Church (Lincoln, Neb), especially since becoming a pastor in 1987, I discovered that I was not alone. There are many evangelicals, i.e. they’ve had a personal encounter with the risen Christ, who are members of no congregation and who are quite content to leave things that way.

Why should these churchless evangelicals join a congregation? After all, they say that they love Jesus and they may have private devotions. Some of them even outwardly profess “the doctrines of grace” but to whom?  What does James 2:14, 17 say about such professions?

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can such faith save him? … 17 So also such faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

James was not teaching acceptance with God by works. He was challenging here dead faith, i.e., mere outward profession. He’s calling for evidence of true faith. Works do not save but they do give evidence of true faith.

A private, churchless, profession of faith is not enough. The doctrine of the church (and sacraments) is where most evangelicals, even predestinarian evangelicals, “hit the wall.” They come so far toward the Reformation but no farther. Why? The biblical and confessional doctrine of the church challenges two cultural assumptions of North American evangelicals and two of the most sacred idols of the culture: autonomy, i.e. the notion that one is a law unto oneself, and the evangelical (and liberal) love for a disembodied Jesus.

The doctrine of predestination is inherently anti-modernist, but one can become a predestinarian evangelical without really confronting the issue because autonomy gets shifted from soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) to ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church). Hunting down human autonomy is like trying grab hold of mercury. It keeps squirting away. So, the autonomy of the churchless evangelical, even after having surrendered to the sovereignty of God in salvation, squirts away to reassert itself when it comes to the church.

Were these churchless evangelicals to unite themselves to a local church, they should have to relinquish their autonomy. They should have to submit themselves not only to a particular expression of the historic church (which is distasteful enough) but they should also have submit themselves to a “church order” (a way of doing things) and to elders and to discipline. Even more fundamentally, they should have to agree and submit to “means”  or media of grace, to a human ministry (administration) of the Gospel and the sacraments. No longer can Christianity be a purely private affair. It would now be public and it would entail being accountable to humans and being served by Christ through human ministry.

In the church Christ ordinarily operates through ministers who preach the gospel and from whom we receive the sacraments. In the church, the Spirit has not promised to operate extemporaneously, but through divinely ordained, physical means. We meet Christ in the announcement of the Good News and we are reassured that it’s all really true in the sacraments, real bread and wine, and in real baptismal water.

The very physicality of these means raises another problem for churchless American evangelicals and liberals. As Mike Horton noted in 1991 and as Harold Bloom observed in 1992 that there is another theory about American religion, insofar as it is truly American, that it is gnostic, i.e., it is born of distrust of the material and physical world. Gnosticism and related errors was the great heresy faced by the ancient church. Our great theologians of the second and third century battled gnosticism relentlessly. They consistently defended the goodness of creation (over against the gnostic suspicion of creation as evil), the simplicity of God (that there are not two gods, an earthy OT “demiurge” and a “spiritual” NT loving God), the true humanity of Jesus (against the claim that Jesus merely appeared to be human) and the unity of the covenant of grace. Indeed, Irenaeus and Justin appealed to the biblical teaching on “the covenant” (of grace) in much the same way Reformed theology has done, since the early 16th century, against the Anabaptists and other such groups who radically reject the unity of the covenant of grace.

The theory that American religion, since the late 18th century, is gnostic explains a great deal of American religious history. The Jesus of American Christianity has become increasingly disembodied as American Christianity has become increasingly disembodied.  Stephen Nichols has illustrated this phenomenon in his recent book on images of Jesus in American Christianity. If there is a “Hawaiian Jesus” (I saw a poster many years ago), an Afro Jesus, and a Swedish pietist Jesus (once pictured in living rooms across middle America) then we’re not really talking about the historical Jesus, God the Son incarnate, in time and history.

These two reasons, the American tendencies toward autonomy relative to all external authorities and institutions and the American tendency toward gnosticism, explain why American evangelicals (and, in their own way, liberals) have so little interest in concrete, material institutions such as the church and sacraments. Becoming churchly entails becoming entangled with the historical church, and Americans are suspicious of the past. Becoming churchly entails coming to grips with real sinners and a real, truly human Savior in Jesus the Christ. American religion (whether liberal or evangelical) is not terribly interested in Christ of history. The liberals prefer a disembodied moralist, the Jesus of faith, and the evangelicals prefer a disembodied spirit with whom they can commune privately, subjectively, and ecstatically.

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it countless times: “I’m not a member of any local congregation. I’m a member of the invisible church.”  When one hears this, one is tempted to agree with John Murray that it would be better not to speak of the invisible church. As tempting as it is, in face of Bedside Baptists and Prostrate Presbyterians, to reject the distinction between the visible and invisible church, we should resist the temptation. The cost is too high. Further, the abuse of this distinction by the ignorant or the willful is insufficient reason to discard it. The idea that one can be a member of the church invisible without being a member of a particular congregation reveals a profound confusion about what we mean when we speak of the church visible and invisible.

The church has two aspects, visible and invisible, but they are two aspects of the same body. In other words, ordinarily, there are no members of the church invisible who are not also members of the church visible, i.e. an identifiable congregation of believers that bears the marks of a true church (the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the administration of church discipline).

Yes, it’s possible for one, in extraordinary circumstances, to be a Christian apart from a congregation and the means of grace, but it’s the exception that tests the rule. Lying in bed on the Sabbath or shopping or whatever one does in place of attending to the means of grace is not the same thing as being on a desert island or being crucified alongside our Savior.

Claiming membership in the church invisible without membership in a congregation is like claiming membership in 24-Hour Fitness without belonging to any particular branch.

“Do you belong to a gym?”

“Yes, I do. 24-Hour Fitness.”

“Great, which branch did you join?”

“Well, I haven’t actually joined any branch, but I like the commercials on TV and I identify with their approach to fitness.”

That’s insane. If you’ve never walked into a particular branch of a gym and signed the papers and paid the fees, you’re not a member. To test this claim try to walk into your local 24-Hour Fitness gym on the basis of your claim to membership in “the invisible gym” or on the basis of your agreement with their approach.

By analogy, the church invisible is composed of those who are, have been, or shall be, members of a visible church. if you’ve never sworn membership vows and confessed a common faith with a congregation, you are not a member of the visible church and if you’re not a member of the church visible, by definition, you are not a member of the church invisible. The former is a prerequisite for the latter.

When we speak of the church invisible, we’re speaking of that great congregation of the elect considered across time and space. It’s a way of speaking of the holy catholic church, that church in all times and places. It’s a way of speaking of the church considered in the past (Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, the Cappadocians, Augustine, Boethius, Gregory, Gottschalk, Bede, Lombard, Thomas, Bradwardine, Wycliffe, Luther, etc.), the church presently scattered across the globe, hidden from the world, and the church as it shall be in the future, until Christ comes. It transcends congregations and denominations but is composed of elect who are members of congregations. It includes people from every tongue, tribe, and nation.

The visible church, on the other hand, is a particular collection of those who profess faith in Christ, who’ve been baptized in recognition of their status as covenant children or who have made profession of faith. The church visible is a mixed, disciplined assembly. This is an important difference from the church considered as invisible. The latter may be said to be composed only of the elect, but there have always been, as our older writers used to say, “hypocrites and reprobates” in the visible community. The visible church has always been made of Jacobs and Esaus. This is why Paul distinguished between Israel outwardly considered and Israel inwardly considered. Not everyone who is Israel outwardly considered is Israel inwardly considered (Rom. 2:28). This is why our theologians, churches, and confessions distinguished between the covenant of grace considered externally and the covenant of grace considered internally.

It’s easy to show the foolishness of speaking about the church invisible in the way that so many do, as if it’s possible to be an “invisible” Christian, as if it’s possible to be a part of the church catholic without being part of the church visible and militant.

To whom were the gospels written? They were written to local congregations in particular places. To whom were the epistles written? They were written to particular congregations in particular places. How does one write an epistle directly to the church of all times and places? They are God’s inspired, infallible, inerrant Word, but that Word was given by the Spirit, through human authors, in a particular time and place. The Word speaks to the church of all times and places but it does so from a particular time and place. The only way to hear that Word, in its original setting, was to be in a congregation.

When Jesus instituted the keys of the kingdom (Matt. 16) he gave them to officers (apostles) to whom he gave spiritual authority to bind and loose. When he instituted church discipline he authorized particular congregations to confront sin, and to take steps to correct it (Matt. 18). It is not possible to “tell it to the church” if, in this instance, “church” means “the church” considered in its invisible aspect. The background to the word “church” there is the OT term for the visible covenant assembly gathered in formal session.

Further, the churches gathered occasionally to work together on common problems (Acts 15). That sort of action and the “decree” issued by the assembly would be impossible without the existence of particular, local congregations who sent delegates (including the Apostles!) to assemble together.

It was to visible congregations that our Lord entrusted the ministry of the Word (Matt. 28; Acts 2, 10; 1 Tim; 2 Tim; Titus) and sacraments. The church invisible does not, by definition, observe sacraments. They are observed in congregations, with duly ordained ministers and elders. Jesus commanded us to administer baptism. He commanded us to observe the Lord’s Supper. The apostolic church did that, in congregations (1 Cor. 11). They didn’t always get it right, but they did meet, they did worship, the Word was preached, the sacraments were administered, and discipline was observed (1 Cor. 5). Particularity is essential to these acts.

It has been widely held by liberals and evangelicals alike that the model by which to interpret the NT and the early church is the Kerygma to Dogma model. In this model, the early church (apostolic and early post-apostolic) was a Spirit-led community that was completely spontaneous, without structure, without form, without offices or officers. Only later was that Spirit-led spontaneity lost as the church gradually acceded to the idea that Jesus was not returning in their lifetime and that some formal structure would be necessary to the continuance of the church.

The evidence is overwhelming that the apostolic and early post-apostolic church was highly organized. For example, there is positive evidence of record keeping (membership lists) in the NT church. The problem in the daily distribution of bread in Acts 6:1 assumes some sort of record keeping of eligible widows. In 1 Timothy 5:9-16 Paul speaks explicitly about a list of names of Christian widows who were eligible for financial assistance from the church. He even lays out the qualifications to be on the list. If the church kept such lists for financial aid, can we reasonably assume that these widows were not on a membership roll? Moreover we cannot help but notice that again Paul’s instructions regarding widows presupposes some sort of organized visible body of Christ who administered this aid to its members.

The evidence is that, however vital their expectation of Jesus’ return, they were organized, structured, with offices, officers, sacraments, and discipline. Read on its own terms, without contemporary, evangelical, individualistic anachronism (reading our time and practices back into theirs), there is every evidence that the NT church was a structured, visible, organized (and not mere organism) institution.

We know where the early congregations were. We know what their circumstances were and we have some idea of what happened to them. For example, see Colin Hemer’s Letters to the Seven Churches or Greg Beale’s Commentary on the Revelation or Dennis Johnson’s, Triumph of the Lamb.

If today’s evangelicals would follow the Apostolic model, they should join themselves to a true church. Truly to be an “evangelical” one should be “gospeler” (as the Puritans sometimes put it). The gospel is good news preached by preachers (Rom. 10) who are ordained by Christ’s church to announce that message. It’s an authorized message with authorized messengers in and to a congregation that is united together by a common faith, by mutual submission to the Word and to the church. The faith is necessarily practiced in community, in congregation and not merely individually, separately, privately.

 So far the case has not been terribly difficult or painful. However many evangelicals may be wandering in the churchless wilderness without any congregation whatsoever, there are few responsible evangelical theologians who, however much they may not wish to talk about the doctrine of the church, would actually advocate a policy of avoiding the local church. Thus, the first two posts have been on the order of house cleaning. With this post, however, we go from preaching to meddling. Hold on to your britches.
For decades after World War II we relied on the Gallup Poll numbers that told us that 40% of Americans attend church. This notion was probably behind the popular notion of “Christian America.” More recent studies have found, however, that American church attendance is actually much lower and much more sporadic. The more recent picture makes sense of the fact that, if the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals is correct and there are 60 million evangelicals in the USA, then evangelicals make up close to 20% of American Christians. And were those evangelicals as devoted to the visible church as once thought, church attendance figures should be higher than they actually are. Weekly attendance is probably actually something like 10%. This means that on any given Sunday morning (forget Sunday night!) about 35 million folks are at church. I think there are something like 60 million Roman Catholics in America and let’s say that among the mainliners there are 7 million. If we impute a church attendance of 40% to each group, we get our 10% figure of 35 million. Whatever the actual figures in each of the group (it might be slightly higher in one group than in another), it’s unlikely that much more than 50% of the 60 million evangelicals are actually in church on any given Sunday.

So, as a practical matter, even if most evangelicals are members of congregations, where there is some sort of actual record of membership and some sort accountability structure (i.e. discipline). it seems likely that most evangelicals have unchurched themselves simply by opting for shopping over the means of grace (assuming they exist in our putative evangelical congregations). If we figure for the number of megachurches where the gospel is virtually non-existent, the number of angry fundamentalist churches trying to reclaim their socio-political place in the culture, and Pentecostals and Charismatics blissed out by the Spirit, one can begin to understand why our evangelicals skip the whole thing. They may be doing today what liberals began to do in the ’60s and ’70s– just stay home. What’s the point of hearing the minister do poorly what Bob Schuller or Joel Osteen or Charles Osgood can do much better?

For our churchgoing evangelicals, however, let’s assume that they attend some congregation even if it might not have a formal membership procedure or the practice or possibility of discipline. With this picture in view there is a another way in which most of the 60 million or so American evangelicals may be said to be churchless.

They may be churchless because, despite attending a congregation, that congregation may not have the marks of the church. This language of “marks of the church” is very ancient. In substance it goes back to the Patristic (most ancient post-apostolic) church’s struggle against the Gnostics and other heretical groups claiming to be “the church.” By the time of the Reformation, the Reformed Churches identified three marks of the true church.

The Scots Confession (1560) identified two “notes” (marks or indicators) of the “true kirk” (ch. 18):

So it is essential that the true Kirk be distinguished from the filthy synagogues by clear and perfect notes lest we, being deceived, receive and embrace, to our own condemnation, the one for the other…. The notes of the true Kirk, therefore, we believe, confess, and avow to be: first, the true preaching of the Word of God, in which God has revealed himself to us, as the writings of the prophets and apostles declare; secondly, the right administration of the sacraments of Christ Jesus, with which must be associated the Word and promise of God to seal and confirm them in our hearts; and lastly, ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered, as God’s Word prescribes, whereby vice is repressed and virtue nourished. Then wherever these notes are seen and continue for any time, be the number complete or not, there, beyond any doubt, is the true Kirk of Christ, who, according to his promise, is in its midst. This is not that universal Kirk of which we have spoken before, but particular Kirks, such as were in Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, and other places where the ministry was planted by Paul and which he himself called Kirks of God.

This is the same conception that one finds in the Belgic Confession Art. 29, adopted by most of the European Reformed Churches beginning in 1561. The French Confession of 1559, in Art. 27 uses essentially the same categories. Thus, by the mid-16th century, there was a widespread consensus among the Reformed Churches of Europe and Britain that there are clear, inherent marks by which the true church may be distinguished from the false church and sects (Belgic 29) or from “filthy synagogues” (Scots Kirk).

If this way of thinking about the church seems strange that ought to alert us to how far we have drifted from our Reformation moorings. In practice, however, we use these categories daily. We just fail to apply them to the church. Not everyone who shoots baskets is a basketball player. A true ball player moves a certain way. He or she has a certain fluidity on the court. A true ball player is in the right place at the right time, he or she holds the ball a certain way, dribbles the ball a certain way, plays defense a certain way. There are marks of genuine ball player. Either one has them or one does not.

It’s the same way with a church. Just because folk who love Jesus and claim to have had an encounter with the risen Christ meet on Sunday morning does not make them a church. What is essential to the existence of a “church”? First, according to Scripture, in Gal. 1, it is possible to corrupt the gospel so that it becomes what Paul calls “another gospel.” If a congregation institutionalizes that false message or fails to preach the true message, it lacks one of the essential marks of a church. The gospel is the proclamation or the announcement that Jesus the Messiah has come, that he was born of a woman, under the law (Gal. 4), that he kept that law (Rom. 5), that he was crucified, dead, buried, and raised on the third day (1 Cor. 15) and that he is ascended to the right hand of the Father in glory (Acts 2). The good news is that sinners are justified by the undeserved favor of God, through faith (trusting) in Christ and his righteousness alone (Gal. 2). Anyone who preaches anything other than that or any congregation that routinely ignores or distorts that message lacks an essential mark of a church. They may be a gathering of good Americans and there may be Christians present. They may be earnest. They may be any number of things, but together, without the gospel, they are no church.

So far, so good. I suppose that most thoughtful evangelicals who still remember the teaching of Packer, Stott, Graham, and Henry (the founders of the older British and American neo-evangelical establishment) would probably agree with the first mark of a church. Let’s say a church is gathered around the gospel but there is no structure (either on the pretense of being truly apostolic or because of sinful fear or laziness) and that no one is held accountable for their behavior after they have made a Christian profession. Again, I suppose that most of the older evangelicals would probably have said that such a congregation probably lacks an essential mark of the church. It was the absence of this mark that caused conservatives to leave their mainline churches in droves for sixty years from the 1920s to the ’80s. For decades, in the mainline churches, conservatives were frustrated by the fact that ministers were able to deny the faith publicly without any sanction against them or their errors. Eventually, people voted with their feet and they left the mainline (liberal, Seven Sister) denominations.

After all, the one-two punch of Jesus and Paul on church discipline is hard to miss. Jesus lays out a structure and an order for discipline in Matt. 18, and Paul demands that it be enforced in 1 Cor. 5. If there are members who are openly contradicting their Christian profession, either by denying the faith or by scandalizing the church and its gospel, or by living in open sin and rebellion against the law of God, they must face some sanction (see Heb. 6 and 10)–in the hope that the rebellious one will recognize his need of a Savior, turn to Jesus in faith and begin living in a way that is consonant with his profession of faith. If there is no sanction against open and willful sin or heresy, then there is no church.

Whatever agreement we might have been able to generate on marks 1 and 3 is likely to evaporate as we come to the next mark. It is so difficult that the old neo-evangelicals simply avoided it altogether. It is the line that many contemporary evangelicals will not cross and it is a line that many, perhaps most Reformed folk, will not cross today. It is virtually universally accepted among evangelicals and even among Reformed folk today that we must be pluralists when it comes to the holy sacraments. Indeed, I guess that most people regard the Quakers and the Salvation Army as “evangelical” even though they do not practice the holy sacraments. If one can be an evangelical without sacraments, the movement is certainly not well positioned to say that a certain practice of them is essential to the church.

Nevertheless, that is exactly what the Reformed Churches have done since the middle of the 16th century. I realize that this is scandalous to all evangelicals and to most Reformed people today, but it’s the clear implication of the Reformed confession and it was the standard position of the magisterial Reformers.

The debate is most pointed and painful when it comes to baptism. An overwhelming majority of modern evangelicals hold Baptist convictions of one sort or another. If it is the case that rejecting infant baptism is sufficient to unchurch a congregation, i.e. to deprive them of the status of being a “church,” then there are very few actual churches in North America, to pick but one global region.

To many such a thought is impossible. It was quite difficult for me to reach this conclusion, but I didn’t reach it carelessly or quickly. For most of my life in the Reformed world since 1980, I shared the assumption that, though I disagreed with my evangelical brothers and sisters over the question of baptism, their congregations were still churches. It’s only been in the last few years that the other shoe has dropped.

Consider the Reformation argument against the Anabaptists. The Reformed had a number of issues with the Anabaptists including Christology (many Anabaptists held to a docetic Christology, i.e. they held that Jesus had what they called a “celestial flesh,” a view which has no relation to the catholic doctrine of the true humanity of Jesus), a defective view of the Christian’s role in civil life, and a unanimous rejection of justification sola gratia et sola fide.

On the Christological and soteriological issues alone, the Reformed were warranted in describing the 16th-century Anabaptists as “sects.” There was, however, another issue which the Reformed mentioned consistently as providing grounds for such a label, i.e. the Anabaptist denial of infant baptism.

However orthodox modern Baptists are on the other issues, they continue to share with the Anabaptists this fundamental conviction: that however valid infant circumcision was prior to the incarnation, the New Covenant is such that there is no place for infant baptism as a proper recognition that the children of believers are members of the covenant of grace just as much today as they were in Abraham’s day.

This rejection of the status of Christian children as such introduced (and continues to perpetuate) a principle of radical discontinuity between Abraham and the Christian, i.e. a radical principle of discontinuity in the history of redemption and in the covenant of grace. This principle of radical discontinuity, this denial of the fundamental unity of the covenant of grace as symbolized in the administration of the sign and seal of the covenant of grace to covenant children, is serious enough to warrant saying that any congregation that will not practice infant initiation (baptism) into the administration of the covenant of grace is not a church. The Protestants criticized the Anabaptists on these very grounds. Denial of infant initiation is a denial of the catholicity of the church stretching back to Abraham and it is too much like the Gnostic denial of the unity of the covenant of grace in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.

Of course there are great difficulties in applying the Reformed critique of the Anabaptists to modern Baptistic evangelicals, because there are great discontinuities between the two groups. As I say, however, they do have that one thing in common and it is one of the things that the Reformed mentioned consistently in their treatises against the Anabaptists and in their confessional documents. The question is whether the modern Baptist repentance of the other Anabaptist errors and heresies is enough to rescue them from the category of “sect.” Another way to put it is ask whether the administration of the holy sacraments may be so marginalized that they are not a mark of the church any longer. It does not appear that Baptists actually think so, and Reformed folk should not think so.

This is why the Belgic Confession says, in Art. 29, “the pure administration of the sacraments.” The Anabaptists and the Romanists practiced the sacraments, but, according to the Reformed Churches, they did not practice them purely. The adjective “pure” is decisive.

The reader should be aware that the view I’m advocating here is not widely accepted, even within my own NAPARC circles. Doubtless it will seem radical to many, but consider a few things. My Baptist friends and students (of whom I have many) do not consider me baptized. What happened to me in 1961 was, for them, nothing than mere magic or sentiment, but it was not baptism. Therefore, I and all such persons are, in their view, unbaptized. For most of Christian history, to say that someone was unbaptized was to unchurch them. In other words, to call me unbaptized is to say that I am not really a Christian. I may profess faith but if I have not been baptized then my profession is, at best, hollow and hypocritical so long as I persist, in their eyes, in being unbaptized. As an unbaptized person, I certainly have no right to the Lord’s Supper and therefore, on their principles, they quite rightly bar me from the table.

To be clear, because we are not Baptists, because Reformed  Churches recognize all Trinitarian baptisms, we do regard our Baptist friends as Baptized. According to the Westminster Confession (1647), “it is a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance…” but so long as they are baptized in the triune name, they are baptized, even if it is late in coming. When they gather thus, in congregations, I regard them as being rebellious, as having a poor view of redemptive history, as having an over-realized eschatology (this is not the age for the unmixed church), but I can’t regard their congregations as “true churches.”

From the Baptist point of view, what are congregations of unbaptized persons? Are they true churches? The London Baptist Confession (1689) doesn’t say explicitly, but let’s make some inferences. From the Baptist perspective, we paedobaptist Reformed Churches may have the gospel, and that’s a good thing, but we are necessarily undisciplined. After all we’re all unbaptized and no one is doing anything about it, and, worse, they celebrate our unbaptized status. Certainly, from the Baptist point of view, we corrupt the sacrament of baptism and a correct view of Baptism would seem to be of the essence of being a “Baptist.”

Thus it is not just the Reformed who are bound to insist on the presence of all three marks, the Baptists do as well. At least they unbaptize all baptized only as infants and thus they effectively unchurch us, even if they don’t like to follow their logic to its conclusion. Most evangelicals are not as thoroughgoing about their doctrine and practice as the so-called Reformed (i.e. predestinarian) Baptists, but they do have a common view of baptism, to the degree that evangelicals have any particular view of the sacraments at all.

From a historical perspective, since the 18th century, on this particular question, the Anabaptists have “won.” They haven’t won the theological argument but they’ve won demographically. There are many more “Anabaptists” when it comes to baptism than there are paedobaptists among the evangelicals and Reformed. Thus it seems shocking for the minority to unchurch, as it were, the majority. Yet, this is precisely what the theology of the majority does to the paedobaptist minority: it unchurches us. We cannot both be right. Either God’s promise and command to Abraham is still in effect or it has been abrogated. Either there is a fundamental unity to the substance and administration of the covenant of grace or there is not.

Whoever is right about baptism it isn’t really a matter of narrow-minded Reformed confessionalists unchurching their Jesus-loving evangelical friends. The difference is that, for Reformed confessionalists, the sacraments are at the heart of our theology, piety, and practice, and, because we’re the minority in late Modern America, we feel the tension with the majority.

If the Reformed confessionalists are right, that there are three marks to a church and if they are right that most evangelical congregations lack one or more of those marks, it leaves the relations between most evangelicals and most consistent confessionalists in a very tenuous place indeed.

If Jesus did institute the Holy Sacraments, however, if he really said, “This is my body…take, eat….do this in remembrance of me” and if he commanded the visible, institutional church to administer baptism to converts and to their children (Acts 2:39), then these are not mere options or second blessings but essential to the life of the Christian and to the life of the Christian Church.

Even if the confessionalists are wrong about whether the evangelical congregations are really churches, no one could fairly say that the evangelical congregations are marked by devotion to and rigorous practice of the Holy Sacraments. Even on a more latitudinarian or pluralist approach to the question of the status of evangelical and Baptist congregations, the evangelical piety must be regarded as virtually sacrament free and that alone should give my more broad-minded brothers reason to pause and take stock as to whether most evangelical congregations deserve the title “church.”

[This post first appeared on the Heidelblog in 2008]

Here’s a related post by Jay Adams on “church tramps.”

You’ve Been Invited To A [Fill In The Blank]: Should You Go?

As the culture descends further into post-Christianity and even the memory of Christianity fades in the minds of most Westerners, Christians will find themselves facing many of the same questions faced by the Christians of the first and second centuries. Many of us are probably finding ourselves in a circumstance where we’re being invited to attending homosexual weddings, the ordination of persons who are not biblically qualified for office, a cultic/pagan/non-Christian ritual, or some other event that is equally problematic.

How should we respond? There are two things that we must do: communicate our genuine love for those involved and our resolute commitment to honor Christ and his Word in every circumstance Let’s start with the latter. How do we honor Christ in a difficult circumstance, when by saying “No” we may seem to be unloving and thus perhaps judgmental, uncharitable, and even unchristian? The answer is that if we act on biblical principles we honor Christ even when it is painful to do so.

As Christians we are free to do a great number of things. In Galatians 5:1 Paul wrote, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery (Galatians 5:1 ESV).” To the Colossians, who were being falsely taught and thus tempted to the spiritual bondage of man-made rules (Col 2), e.g., “do not touch, do not taste…” the Apostle Paul re-asserted the Christian’s liberty to enjoy God’s good creation within the bounds of his law, in the freedom of the gospel. In 1Corinthians 8, Paul defended the Christian’s freedom to eat meat offered to idols, even when others think that we should not. Nevertheless, there are things we are not free to do. We are not free to do things that may cause a brother or sister stumble back into paganism, unbelief, or into gross sin. Some believers understand that pagan gods and idols are nothing but figments of the imagination.

Not all, however, possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do (1 Corinthians 8:7–8 revised from the ESV)

We are also free not to eat if the exercise of the freedom to eat will cause a brother or sister to stumble. We are free to eat until that eating becomes a competing communion. The moment our pagan host says, “We offered this to the gods” then we must say, “Thank you for your kind invitation but I cannot participate.”

Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are cone body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that fan idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he? (1Cor 10:14–22; ESV)

Believers are already in communion with the Lord. Just as the Israelites (infants and adults) were baptized into Moses, and just as they communed in the wilderness between redemption and the promised land, so we have been identified with Christ and are sojourning between redemption and consummation (1Cor 10:1–13). So, too, we’ve been initiated into Christ’s covenant community (the visible church), identified with his death in baptism. We’ve made profession of faith and have eaten his ascended, proper and natural body and blood (John 6:53; Belgic Confession Art. 35) by the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit, through faith. Our loyalties have been bought with a price. Therefore we honor God with our bodies (1Cor 6:20).

“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience—I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks? So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved (1 Corinthians 10:23-33 ESV).

As Paul says, we are free from the opinions of men and from bondage to the same but we are not free to damage brothers and sisters by leading them back into sin and we are not free to participate in rituals which rival those instituted by Christ. On this principle Reformed folk have historically refused to participate in the Masonic Lodge and related and parallel societies, their youth auxiliaries and the like. On this principle Reformed folk have refused to commune in a Roman Catholic mass (see Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 80).

Paul is clear that it’s not that we must withdraw from the world (1Cor 5:10) but there are limits to our freedoms. We cannot participate in a competing religious ceremony or communion.

Whether attending an ordination service constitutes participating in a competing communion is a judgment call but it’s hard to attend such ceremonies (e.g., a homosexual wedding) without signaling approval. If something is really wrong then to do it is to act against truth and conscience. We know that the Apostle Paul would not participate in a meal in which the host said, in effect, this meal is no longer purely common, it is a religious meal.” Would he attend the ordination of a homosexual male or of a female of any sexual orientation? Uncomfortable as it makes late moderns (and, according to surveys, Millennials in particular), the Apostle Paul categorized both homosexual orientation and behavior as sin. It’s hard to imagine that he would sanction a homosexual wedding with his presence—not because he was a prude but because his conscience is bound to the Word of God. Arguably, the same is true for the question of the ordination of females. There are writers whose work I really like, outstanding female scholars who are also ordained ministers. I appreciate and value their persons and their work without endorsing their ordination or their defense of the ordinate of females. Try as they may, the advocates of the ordination of females to the ministry have not been able to make 1Timothy 2 disappear from Holy Scripture:

I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve… (1 Timothy 2:12-13 ESV).

Steve Baugh has effectively refuted the argument that Paul was responding to a particular kind of feminism in Ephesus—with the consequence that Paul’s prohibition in 1Timothy 2:12–13 no longer applies today. As my dear friend Don Treick always says, “It’s in the Bible.” Indeed, as a practical matter, life would be easier if it wasn’t but it is and it’s there for a reason and this is one of those pressure points that will continue to cause friction between Christians and the broader culture. If we allow 1Timothy 2 to be swept away for the sake of getting along, then the rest of Scripture must necessarily go by the boards.

As the liberals long ago caved in and evangelicals have conceded the ordination of females, those who resist will be regarded with even great suspicion: “What’s wrong with you? Why won’t you go along with the program?” At that point, it’s clear that the real issue is no longer: what is the truth, what does Scripture teach, how has the church historically understood this passage, what do we confess? Now the question is why some stubborn folks won’t conform. That’s exactly the challenge faced by the early Christians in the 2nd century. As in the martyrdom of Polycarp, the Romans weren’t typically asking Christians to believe that Caesar is a god but. They were only asking us to say that he is. They weren’t typically asking us to stop believing in Jesus. They were only asking us to renounce Christ outwardly. They were asking us to conform outwardly. Those who refused paid for it with blood. We’re not there yet but we don’t have to look far to see it, do we?

According to 1John 4, there is a connection between words and what they signify. They signify spiritual realities with spiritual consequences. Therefore there are limits to what we may say and sometimes we are called upon to confess the faith in the face of moral and theological error, even when it is uncomfortable to do so.

How To Disagree Without Being Disagreeable
Above we considered the problem created by movement of the prevailing culture away from Christian-theistic assumptions and the associated descent of the culture into neo-paganism. How do Christians respond to the pressure to conform to social and religious events and other gatherings that are contrary to Christian ethics? The first thing we must do is to understand the antithesis between belief and unbelief and when we must stand on and assert that antithesis. The second question before us is how to respond when we find ourselves in a state of confession, i.e., when our non-Christian friends, relatives, co-workers, or others ask us to or even seek to require us to do that which the moral law of God does not permit.

We are not the first believers to face these questions and challenges. The first Christians faced them in the first several centuries after the ascension of Christ and well beyond as Christianity moved beyond the Mediterranean to Western Europe, where it again came into contact with paganism. We did not always navigate these seas well. Sometimes we assimilated pagan ideas and practices into our theology, piety, and practice. Sometimes this happened in the attempt to communicate the gospel to pagans and sometimes it happened out of desire to be accepted by pagans, as a way of minimizing the friction between Christianity and paganism.

After Scripture, which we considered in part 1, one of the more helpful guides to these question is the Treatise to Diognetus. This document was written sometime in the mid-2nd century (c. 150AD) by an author who called himself simply “the disciple” (Mathetes) Scholars disagree about who the author probably was but my favorite suggestion, defended brilliantly by Charles Hill, is that it was most likely Polycarp. Whoever “the disciple” was he gives us a wonderful pattern for engaging our non-Christian friends, neighbors, relatives, and even civil authorities in a winsome way. Like Christians in northern Nigeria, throughout the Middle East, and the Far East the Christians of the 2nd century were under increasing pressure to conform to the prevailing paganism and sometimes that pressure to conform came from the pointy end of a sword. In his appeal for toleration Mathetes wrote the following:

For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric way of life…For while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. The live in their own countries but only as nonresidents, they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are in the flesh, but they do not live according to the flesh. They live on earth but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws. They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted.

In this passage (from chapter 5) Mathetes does two things: He acknowledges that we do, in fact, have things in common with unbelievers and he asserts the anthesis, i.e., the reality that, when it comes to ultimate matters, Christians have loyalties and commitments that transcend our commitments to this world.

Notice his rhetorical strategy. He did not appeal first to the antithesis, that which separates Christians from non-Christians but to that which we have in common. One mistake that new Christians (or sometimes those who have newly discovered the Reformed confession) is the temptation to deny that Christians and non-Christians have anything in common whatever. This is understandable. When we first come to faith we see how blind, how ignorant we were, that we lived in moral and spiritual darkness. Now that, by God’s free, sovereign favor, we see what we were and what we are and who Christ is and who he is to us—our Savior and the Lord of all!—it’s tempting to think that we no longer have anything in common with our unbelieving past or our unbelieving friends, relatives, or co-workers. That’s not true. We do. Both of us, believers and unbelievers alike, continue to live in God’s world together. In that respect nothing has really changed. What has changed is that, by God’s free favor in Christ, by the work of the Spirit in us, by which we were granted new life, we now see things differently but Christ was Lord all along. Our coming to new life and faith and union with Christ did not make Lord. He was. We just see it now. We were God’s image bearers before we came to faith—even though the image was defaced and we were busily trying to deny that reality and to suppress the knowledge of God that all image bearers carry (Gen 2). Our non-Christian friends et al are also image bearers. They are in rebellion to the Lord but that rebellion doesn’t change the facts. It just adds to the chaos and confusion of this world.

Because we share a common, shared status as image bearers, because believers and unbelievers live together under God’s general providence (he makes the rain to fall on believers and unbelievers alike; Matt 5). Recently, in San Diego County, we endured some unseasonable wildfires. Many acres have been burned so far but, thanks to God, relatively few homes or businesses have burned. Did God spare only Christians? No. He spared Christians and non-Christians and likely both Christians and non-Christians lost homes. We live in God’s world together. We stop at the same traffic lights. We experience the same weather. We eat the same food. We were the same clothes (although we may we them a bit differently sometimes). We speak the same language. We drive the same cars. We use the same phones. We obey the same laws.

So, as we try to communicate to our non-Christians friends why we cannot join them in their celebration, we should be sure to begin with that which unites us, which we have in common. One of the the things that has always irritated non-Christians most about Christians is that it has seemed to them that we have nothing whatever in common with them, that we are “special,” that we are exempt from this affairs of this world. From those places where we must separate from the world or distinguish ourselves from it, unbelievers sometimes (perhaps often) infer that we do so because we are intrinsically better than they, that we think that God loves us (and not them) because we are good and hates them because they are bad. This is because the natural impulse is to relate to God on the basis of works (being good). We were made to relate to God on the basis of works (Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 6, 9). We confess that we “were made in righteous and true holiness that we might rightly know our Creator, heartily love with him” and, upon completing the probation, “live with him in eternal blessedness” because we had obeyed what the Belgic Confession (ch. 14) calls “the commandment of life.”

Unfortunately, sometimes those who profess the Christian faith give unbelievers reason to think that is how the world works, that we really do relate to God on the basis of our personal obedience when the truth is quite opposite: after the fall we are accepted only and ever on the basis of Christ’s perfect righteousness earned for us and imputed to us and received through faith (resting, trusting) alone.

Of course unbelievers may be misinterpreting our assertion of the fundamental spiritual (and consequently epistemic) difference between believers and non-believers as a claim that we have nothing in common. Perhaps, however, we have unintentionally given the impression that we have nothing in common? Sometimes Christians (and even some in the Reformed community) sometimes speak about the antithesis in a way that gives that impression.

There is a most profound difference between believers and unbelievers. It is the difference between spiritual blindness and sight, between spiritual life and death. The only reason the dead come to life (Ezek 37) and the blind are made to see (Matt 11) is free, sovereign Spirit of God who raises the dead and grants sight to the blind. The dead have no prior claim on God and he does not give sight to the blind because of any quality in them or even because of the quality of their faith. Therefore, we must not ever ascribe the difference to anything but God’s free favor and sovereign good pleasure.

Nevertheless, as humans made in the image of God, as fellow sinners as judged by the law of God, as fellow recipients of God’s general providence and mercy by which he gives gifts and restrains evil, we do have genuine areas of community and as we try to articulate our differences and our convictions we do well to begin with those things we have in common.

How To Communicate Our Differences
So far we have looked at Paul’s teaching to the Corinthians about the limits of their ability to relate to non-Christians and his defense of Christian freedom in the same. We have also looked at the defense of the faith by a certain Disciple (Mathetes) c. 150AD as part of which he explained briefly what Christians have in common with non-Christians and what they do not. In this final part of the series we will consider how this early Christian articulated the spiritual, theological, and moral antithesis to his non-Christian neighbors.

As we try to explain to our non-Christian friends, neighbors, and loved ones why we cannot join them in their event, as I tried to explain in part 2, we need to by express the antithesis that exists between belief and unbelief. Paul says:

Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,

“I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
Therefore go out from their midst,
and be separate from them, says the Lord,
and touch no unclean thing;
then I will welcome you,
and I will be a father to you,
and you shall be sons and daughters to me,
says the Lord Almighty.”

(2 Corinthians 6:16&ndsah;18 ESV)

Before we express the antithesis we need to try to communicate our genuine appreciation for those who have offered to include in a significant event in their lives. Though they know, in their conscience (Rom 1–2), that God is and there is something wrong and that they are ultimately accountable to God they are also busily suppressing that knowledge. They do live in real darkness (Eph 2). Their affections are misdirected and confused. They, as we before God graciously gave us new life and opened our eyes, hate God and do not want to submit to his creational order and moral law. Yet, as image bearers, in the general providence of God, they can be genuinely kind and none of us is as evil as we might otherwise be without the restraining hand of God.

We need to say to those who’ve included us in their lives, “We love you. We care for you as a fellow image bearer and as a friend/neighbor/co-worker/family member. We genuinely appreciate your invitation to participate in [fill in the blank]. We appreciate how important this event is to you and how important it is to you to have your friends and loved ones present.” It would be good to articulate what it is in particular about your non-Christian friend that you value—as I’ve mentioned before, we ought to value folk not just for their potential to become Christians, for then they become mere notches on one’s evangelistic belt—but rather we ought to love them for what they are (fellow image bearers) and who they are to us.

We have good warrant for thinking and speaking this way. God loves sinners. Jesus, God the Son incarnate, loved sinners—the very sinners, for whom he came to obey, die, and for whose justification he was raise. He loved those who turned on him in a mob, the same mob that shouted for Bar-Abbas out of spite.

After we have expressed our affection for those who’ve sought to include us in their lives in this way, we should also explain why we cannot participate. It is not because we are morally superior or without sin but because we are not our own. We’ve been bought with a price (1Cor 6). We may be relatively autonomous with respect to civil authorities and others in this world but relative to God we are servants, we are slaves. We are to “have this mind” in us that Christ Jesus had (Phil 2). Even if we might otherwise be minded to it, because we have been purchased with the precious blood of Christ (1Pet 1:19) there are limits, there are things we may not do.

Mathetes wrote:

For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric way of life…For while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. The live in their own countries but only as nonresidents, they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are in the flesh, but they do not live according to the flesh. They live on earth but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws. They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted.

The limits of our participation in are determined by our dual citizenship. We are free to do a great many things but insofar as our heavenly citizenship (Phil 3:20) limits us there simply are things we cannot do. As Americans (or where ever the reader might be) we love our country but we love another country, a heavenly city-state (Gal 4) even more and we are ambassadors from that place to this. We must live before our unbelieving friends, neighbors, and relatives as if we represent the heavenly kingdom because we do. The Ambassador for Whatevertania might like to appear before the president in flip-flops and sunglasses but he dare not because he is, with respect to his office, a public person. So it is with us. We live fully in this place and time, under the Lordship of Christ but as Mathetes says, our heavenly citizenship prevents us from sharing our wives, from putting our (unborn and born) children to death, and from indulging in sexual immorality and from sanctioning that which is contrary to the creational pattern—a pattern which is binding upon all image bearers.

During the course of this brief series some correspondents have written to ask about Christian liberty in these matters. Yes, of course, there is liberty (1Cor 6:12) but that liberty is circumscribed by God’s moral law and when not limited by law it is limited by wisdom. Even if, under God’s law, you might believe yourself to be free to do this or that you should still ask yourself: “is it wise? Is it profitable?” I understand the temptation to react to legalism but not all limits are legalism.

Three Messages To Millennials: Marriage, Church, And Work

On March 7, 2014, the Pew Research Center published the results of a new Survey:Millennials in Adulthood. Bradford Wilcox has a summary in the NRO. According to the study, Millennials have become disconnected from some basic institutions: marriage, church, and work—though not in exactly the same way in each instance. In response, I thought it might be helpful to address Millennials (aged 18–34) directly on these issues.

According to Pew (via Wilcox),

Only 26 percent of Millennials are married, a record low for their age group. By contrast, back in 1980, when they were the age that Millennials are now, 48 percent of Baby Boomers were married. The Millennial retreat from marriage is particularly worrisome because it hasn’t stopped many of them from having children. In 2012, 47 percent of births to Millennial women took place outside marriage, a troubling trend because such children are much more likely to end up in single-parent families that put them at higher risk of educational failure, poverty, and emotional distress.

Millennials seem to have given up on marriage. In their defense, a Millennial might argue, “We’re just being consistent. The Boomers showed us that marriage is a joke. They gave us “no-fault” divorce, the Gen-Xers were a half-way house and we’re consistent. We spent our youths shuttling between angry and disappointed parents. Why would we want that for ourselves and our children?” Fair enough. The Boomers could argue that their parents, “the Greatest Generation” (World War II) were trapped in cold, stifling marriages that made a mockery of true love and romance.” There’s probably some truth in that characterization but most of the (now aging) Boomers were raised in stable, two-parent households whose greatest mistake was spoiling their children in reaction to wartime deprivation. We could go back to the Dustbowl Generation and fault them for giving up on the fundamental convictions that undergirded the institution of marriage. The sins of one generation reverberate through history to the next and the next.

So, the Millennials are not entirely at fault. They are the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of previous generations who weakened the institution of marriage. Still, are the Millennials right to give up on marriage? No. Why? Because God instituted marriage for a reason. In this fallen world nothing will ever be perfect. One of the more basic reasons that we’ve lost faith in marriage as an institution is that we have been sold a bill of goods about what is possible in the life. The Christian faith has a vision of the future, of how things will be one day. We call that vision “eschatology” or “the doctrine of last things” or “of ultimate things.” Despite what you may have heard and read, this life is not the “ultimate thing.” This life is a penultimate (next to last) thing.

Modernity has offered us a series of competing visions of heaven on earth: Marxism (when the proletariat are in charge), Romanticism (when we’re all experiencing the most sublime experiences), and so on. They’re all cheap replacements for the Christian doctrine of judgment and glorification. The problem with these competing visions of the end is that they have inflated expectations about what is possible in this life. One advantage the older (pre-Boomer) generations had is that the tended to expect a little less from this world and so weren’t as easily disappointed. The life of the Dust Bowl generation was more like that of the Founding Fathers than it was like ours. They were still getting used to electricity. They likely couldn’t imagine a world where we expected a new pocket telephone-television-computer every 12 months. The computerized technological revolution has only fueled those visions of what is possible in this life that tend to make mundane, routine, and ordinary life seem inherently bound for failure.

So, why should you, Millennial, re-think your suspicion of the institution of marriage? That’s a fair question. The first part of the answer is, despite all the corruption and effects (and affects) of the fall, marriage is still a divine institution. It is built into the nature of things. Scripture says,

Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” …The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. So Yahweh Elohim caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Yahweh Elohim had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,

“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. (Genesis 2:18, 20–25; Revised from the ESV)

Marriage was instituted before the fall. Even before the fall it was not good for us to be alone. The human fall into sin brought with it deception, broken relationships, and pain but after the fall there was something else: mercy and grace. Though he did bring to pass the threatened curse for our covenant breaking (death) he also showed mercy in not destroying us. He showed mercy in restraining the effects of the fall. As bad as things have sometimes been in this world (e.g., the Black Death of the 14th century) they’ve never been as bad as they might be. God’s restraining mercies toward his rebellious creatures does make a difference.

As part of his restraining mercy, God continues to make marriage a good that men and women are intended to share. As a young Christian I once thought that marriage must only be for believers but a dear friend gently pointed out that heterosexual marriage (which should be redundant but must be made explicit in our confused age) is for all of God’s image bearers. Even to non-Christians marriage points back to the original state and to a future state. At its best, it is a witness that things have not always been this way and shall not always be as they are.

Beyond the restraint of evil, from which all humans benefit, he also showed undeserved favor to rebellious humans by promising deliverance from the judgment we had brought upon ourselves. We call that undeserved favor grace. God promised to pour out his last days (eschatological) wrath upon the child of the Eve and that child would conquer the Evil One, who, in God’s mysterious and all-wise and utterly good providence, had introduced corruption into the world (Gen 3:14–16).

The Apostle Paul, who himself was a widower, said that Christian marriage is a signpost to believers of the way Christ loves his church. Reflecting on the very institution of marriage that we saw in Genesis 2, Paul says:

This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband (Eph 5:32–33 ESV).

The second part of the answer is that, despite all appearances, marriage is still good. They are complicated and messy. Your own experience of your parents’ marriage may have been quite blessed or perhaps not. Whatever your experience you should be a little skeptical of the story the mass media has been telling about marriage and divorce. Things are bad but they aren’t quite as bad as they are made to seem on TV. There are good marriages out there. It’s not true that you have only a 50% chance of staying married. The statistical likelihood of your marriage surviving is much greater than 50% (here’s a summary).

God is good. Despite what you’ve been told, creation (though fallen) is good too. Marriage is one of those creational goods in which God intends for most of us to participate.1 I know you’re nervous. That’s okay. I know that most of your friends don’t seem interested in marriage. That’s unfortunate but they’re confused and misinformed. A million Frenchmen can be wrong. Your desire for sexual union with someone of the opposite sex is normal and it needs to be ordered in the divinely intended way.

In the first part we looked at the some of the challenges Millennials face relative to marriage. According to the recent Pew Study, Millennials identify with organized religion at a lower rate than previous generations. To quote Billy Joel, they “didn’t start the fire,” as it were, but they have added to it. Millennial suspicion of the visible church is a part of the pattern we noted previously: suspicion of existing institutions generally.

Why should Millennials (and everyone else) value the visible church? Because God values the visible, institutional church. The prima facie biblical evidence is overwhelming. Our Lord Jesus said, in Matthew 18, “tell it to the church.” That instruction only makes sense relative to a visible covenant community. It was not possible to “tell it to” all believers everywhere. It is possible to make an announcement about church discipline to a congregation, an expression of the church catholic (universal).

We know that God values the visible, assembled church because he gathered Israel, whom, by his sovereign grace, he had saved from bondage in Egypt, at the foot of Sinai. Deuteronomy 9:10 says,

Yahweh gave to me the two tablets of stone written by the finger of God. On them were all the commandments Yahweh proclaimed to you on the mountain out of the fire, on the day of Ha Qahal (i.e., the assembly, See Deut 10:4; 18:16).

Ha Qahal is Hebrew for “the covenant assembly.” These were the people whom God had baptized, as it were, in the Red Sea, when he brought them through on dry ground (Ex 14:22). These were they whom Yahweh fed with quail (1Cor 10). In other words, the visible church is ancient. Sacraments are ancient. We could look at the church under Abraham, Noah, and even Adam before and after the fall. In other words, there has always been a visible people, assembled by the Lord himself, organized by God’s Word, with appointed visible signs and seals (sacraments).

Though it is widely thought that the early church was unstructured and purely spontaneous, that such is definition of “spiritual” is much more the product of assumption. When our Lord Jesus spoke of the ecclesia he was picking up on an ancient thread in Scripture. The New Testament speaks repeatedly to and about the visible, organized assembly where the Word is read, preached, and administered in the sacraments. I’ve summarized that data here. The church is a body but it is also organized and disciplined. Our Lord commissioned his disciples to represent him in official functions (Matt 28:18–20). At Pentecost, those disciples became apostles, with a special, unique endowment of the Holy Spirit and with the authority of Christ they established the offices of minister, elder, and deacon.

Americans are independent by inclination. Church growth experts tell new congregations to downplay their denominational identity in order to appeal to Americans, who tend to be suspicious of denominations. The corollary for individuals is the tendency of Americans to identify themselves as “spiritual” but to say that they are not interested in organized religion. American Christians like to be free agents but that isn’t the biblical view and it isn’t the historic Christian view.

When, in the Apostles’ Creed, Christians confess,

I believe the holy catholic church, the communion of the saints, the forgiveness of sins…

we are saying that the same Holy Spirit who hovered over the face of the deep, who hovers over the church (1 Peter 4) is still creating or re-creating a community of the redeemed. In the Heidelberg Catechism Reformed Christians confess:

That, out of the whole human race, from the beginning to the end of the world, the Son of God, by His Spirit and Word, gathers, defends and preserves for Himself to everlasting life a chosen communion in the unity of the true faith; and that I am and forever shall remain a living member of the same.

In other words, in Scripture and in Christian theology there is no dichotomy between the Spiritual and the material (and the organized). Spontaneity might be fun and exciting but it isn’t inherently spiritual. It isn’t necessarily biblical. It is in these assemblies that we find the communion of the saints. Again, in the Heidelberg Catechism we confess:

What do you understand by the ‘communion of saints’?

First, that believers, one and all, as members of the Lord Jesus Christ, are partakers with Him in all His treasures and gifts; secondly, that each one must feel himself bound to use his gifts readily and cheerfully for the advantage and welfare of other members.

Honesty compels us to admit that the visible churches have made great mistakes. Ministers have sinned. The assemblies are composed of sinners, of broken people. There are hypocrites in the visible church but Jesus spent considerable time with one of the greatest and most notorious hypocrites in human history: Judas Iscariot. We should not seek to be more holy than God the Son incarnate.

Are there grounds for being disappointed with the visible, organized church? Yes. Is there a reason to be connected to it anyway? Yes. We go back to our understanding of eschatology. Last time we saw that we’re in the in-between, penultimate time. The visible church is part of that in-between existence. Christ intends for us Christians to spend that time together, in congregations, hearing the Word read and preached, in praying and singing his Word in response, and in celebrating his life, death, resurrection, ascension, and future return in his appointed signs and seals.

Above we looked at the way, according to a recent Pew Study, Millennials relate to the visible, institutional church. The third major topic is work. As Bradford Wilcox summarizes the results of the study he notes that 80% of those aged 24–29 are employed. Only 44% of those aged 18–29 are employed full-time. That latter number seems quite low. I’m not a social scientist and I don’t play one on the web (as an undergrad I used to social “science” when required but I was more interested in arguments than statistics). One study claims that Millennials are about four years behind the previous generation in reaching the same level of income. According to this study, one reason is that, even though they are nominally educated (i.e., they’ve gone through late-modern educational process) young men particularly have failed to develop the necessary skills to flourish in the workplace. Paul Solman claims

Millennials aren’t employed at lower rates because they’re lazy or bad at math; they’re the most educated generation ever. But they’re also the first generation to face the new demands for education and skill — and a bad economy, a much higher cliff to climb than previous generations.

Anecdotal evidence suggests to me that might be an overly optimistic assessment. The educational system has largely failed the Millennials. They have gone through the process but I doubt that they are as highly educated as Solman claims. Since the arrival of the modern, industrial age, many generations have had to adapt to changing conditions and market demands. There have been bad economies before, though this seems to be the worst post-Reagan economy by a longshot. I’m having flashbacks to the Carter years.

Vince Ginn is probably correct, however, that the job market is working against them. This is not the go-go 80s where young people can expect to find a good job easily upon graduation from college. They are competing for low-skill jobs once thought to be the domain of High School graduates or even High School dropouts. Millennials certainly face an uphill climb. Obamacare, rising college costs (and the resulting loan debt—many grads are now carrying the equivalent of a mortgage as they graduate from college),  apparently failed policies such as the Affordable Care Act, and a generally unsettled economy (which makes companies reluctant to take risks, to invest, to expand or to recover some of the workforce they laid off after the crash of ’07–’08) seem poised to make the economic future of Millennials darker than previous generations.

Even with all that, the Great Recession was not the Great Depression. This was a post-Reagan recession. The Malls remained relatively full. Yes, there were some empty shops but I recall recessions under Nixon-Carter-Reagan (’80–81) where there were empty shelves, empty stores, gas lines and the deprivation and poverty of the Great Depression was markedly worse than than anything we’ve experienced since.

One thing has changed, however, since the Great Depression: the work ethic. There are two great social changes afoot that will mark this generation. Homosexual marriage, which the Millennials generally support partly because it makes them feel enlightened and morally superior to support what they see as a cause of liberation (allowing people to do what they want). It seems like a pain-free way to say: follow your bliss. They don’t, however, seem to grasp the significance of what it means to re-define marriage in purely affective terms, without reference to nature. They will.

The second great social change that marks this generation is the legalization of pot. As an GenXer (you’re not a Boomer if you didn’t see Howdy Doody or if you can’t remember where you were when JFK was assassinated) raised with some Dustbowl economic values, I worry about what the legalization of weed signifies. Perhaps it means nothing but weed does nothing if not destroy one’s desire to work and accomplish. That’s not true for a glass of wine or even a beer—a six-pack maybe or a whole bottle of wine but now we’re not comparing apples with apples.

Recently we’ve had national leaders extolling the virtues of unemployment. We’ve heard national political figures sounding very much like Marx regarding the virtues of leisure. It wasn’t that long ago that mainstream politicians of both parties sounded very different. That they can now speak like Marx makes one think that there has been a fundamental cultural shift relative to work and it’s hard not to think that people (including Millennials) no longer view work as inherently good and valuable.

As I argued back in September, however, work is inherently good. God is a worker, a Creator. We were made in his image. We are given work to do in the garden even before the fall. Work is an important way in which we express our status as bearers of the divine image. Work continued after the fall, even if it became difficult and frustrating. When the Apostle Paul learned that some believers were quitting their jobs because they thought that Jesus was coming immediately, he told them to get back to work and that if they didn’t work, they shouldn’t eat.

Then there is the ancient biblical and Christian idea of vocation. Where the medieval and Roman churches tended to locate vocation only in the sacred, in Monasteries and in the call to ministry, the Protestants argued that every image bearer has a vocation, that secular work is not inherently defiled or defiling. It is just an honorable as sacred work. We’re called in Scripture to do our work to the glory of God and to the well-being of our neighbor.

All business people are not Gordon Gekko. Starting a business, selling a service or a product, meeting a need in the marketplace at a fair market price is a good thing. Business is noble, not evil. Investing and getting a return on that investment is a good thing. Being successful and employing others is a good thing. One of the fastest growing segments of our economy is the non-profit segment. That’s all well and good but who is going to fund all these non-profits? Business people. We can’t all work in non-profits and I say this as an employee of a non-profit. I’m deeply grateful to those business people who make it possible for me to do what I do at work and here at the HB.

I fear that the reaction to excess (real or perceived) is grounded not in a Christian evaluation of work and leisure but in a sort of Gnostic, docetic denial of human reality. As a largely urban and suburban culture, Americans don’t seem to understand clearly any more, e.g., from where food comes. They think it appears magically in the grocery. It doesn’t. A farmer risked his capital (money) to buy/rent land, to buy equipment and animals, to buy seed and materials. That farmer got out of bed (sometimes in awful weather), grew it, sold it, and a company processed it and turned it into food. People risked themselves and capital (money and resources) in order to produce it. So, of course, they aren’t going to give it away. They can’t even if they wanted to or they wouldn’t be able to continue growing food.

The same is true of something as apparently simple as a pencil.

All those people, through whom a pencil eventually comes into existence, are doing something valuable. That’s the way God made the world. Work is not greedy or money grubbing. It’s one of the reasons we exist, to fulfill our vocation, whatever it may be and to play our part, to the glory of God and the well-being of our neighbor.


1. Singleness is a gift from God (1Cor 7:8) but it is the exception rather than the rule. If God has called you to singleness, then praise God. If not, praise God but please don’t confuse fear and uncertainty about the future for a call to singleness.

This essay first appeared in three parts on the Heidelblog in 2014.

To the Evangelical Nicodemites

Over the last few years there have been a few laments about “Reformed rocks stars.” Carl Trueman has rightly warned against the cult of personality. Now I would like to turn the tables. If we should be concerned about rock stars and personalities in evangelicalism and Reformed-dom then we should also be concerned about about another party to all this: those who attend those conferences and those who do not.

First, there are lots of Christians who attend congregations which, shall we say, are part of the problem more than they are part of the solution, where the gospel is not preached purely, where the sacraments are not administered purely, and where discipline is not practiced. These folk also attend Reformed conferences. They attend because they are “fed” there, because they can fellowship with like-minded folk there, because, in some cases, it’s a relief from their congregation. Still they stay in their congregations.

I know this happens because I have heard the stories and I’ve met such. They bring to mind Nicodemus (John 9), who came to Jesus late at night when it was safe to visit, so that he would not have to pay the price for being publicly associated with Jesus. In the 16th century, there was an analogous group whom the Reformed called “Nicodemites.” These were Roman Catholics who professed to hold the evangelical faith but who, nevertheless, were unwilling to leave their Roman congregations. They told their Reformed friends and sometimes even wrote to the reformers themselves to ask for counsel about this very problem. They felt the tension themselves. They were fearful of offending family. They feared leaving the familiar and the comfortable. They feared social consequences, even economic consequences, losing a job or an inheritance. In some cases it might have meant leaving town for purely religious reasons. There were strong external incentives to remain in the Roman Church while practicing the evangelical faith privately.

There are discontinuities, of course, between 16th-century Roman Catholics and 21st-century evangelicals, but there are continuities too. There are strong external reasons not to leave the local mega-church. There is a comfortable anonymity and safety in the theater seating, at the coffee bar, or on the couch with the candles. The services might not be great but the small groups are fantastic. It is the place to be. The band is hot. One can dress casually. All one’s friends attend. There’s a peer pressure or family pressure to conform.

There are things to be lost in walking away from one’s comfortable evangelical congregation. Indeed, I have known more than a few Reformed folk who, upon leaving their evangelical congregation have been shunned, have lost business or business opportunities and have hurt family connections. Calvin addressed these very problems in a number of letters and in A Short Treatise Setting Forth What the Faithful Man Must Do When He is Among the Papists and Knows the Truth of the Gospel (1543). It is worth considering this treatise and it is useful to apply it to our evangelical Nicodemite friends in hopes of encouraging them to identify with those churches who were, in the 16th century and who, in the late modern period, are once again “under the cross.”

In his brilliant work, War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship From Erasmus to Calvin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), Carlos M. N. Eire adds some context to the Nicodemite problem as Calvin faced it. As Eire, notes, the problem was not in Geneva, but in France (235) where “French Protestants lives in an environment that was hostile to their beliefs and practices, making the threat of idolatry even greater.” Before “such pressure, some Protestants assumed the attitude of compromise and deceit that came to be known as Nicodemism” (236). Beza explained.

There were also at that time in France certain persons, who, having renounced the protestant religion at the commencement, through fear of persecution, had begun afterwards so far to flatter themselves as to deny there was any sin in being present with their bodies only at the celebration of the mass, provided they embraced the true religion in their hearts. Calvin, whom they blamed for the excess of his severity, plainly refuted, by his clear and elegant writings, this very pernicious error, which the fathers had long ago condemned. He annexed also the opinions of the most learned reformers, Philip Melanchthon, Peter Martyr, Bucer, and the church of Zurich, and so far restrained the progress of this error, that the Nicodemites, which name they had acquired by adducing the example of this most holy person as a pretext for their false sentiments, he fell into bad repute in the church.

As Beza noted (and as Eire follows him) Calvin wasn’t the only one to face this problem. It was universal to the confessional Protestants. The confessional Lutheran theologian, Johannes Brenz used the adjective “Nicodemish” in 1529. Calvin wrote Luther to and translated two books into Latin just for him to ask him to speak out against it (but Melanchthon pocketed the letter because, as he told Calvin, “Pericles” was in no mood just then to hear from the Reformed about worship). There is a debate in the scholarship over whether Nicodemism was a coherent movement. Carlo Ginzburg argues it was and Eire disagrees (239). If we compare the 16th-century “Nicodemites” to today’s churchless evangelicals wandering from congregation to congregation to to no congregation at all, we can see how there can be a sort of intellectual community with no organization. There seem to be a lot of folk who share certain ideas but just as they seem to be allergic to the visible church so they lack any formal organization. It is hard to imagine any sort of formal organization of people afraid to identify publicly as Protestants or as Reformed or as evangelicals.

Calvin was conscious that there were some difficulties in calling these “dissemblers” Nicodemites. He didn’t regard Nicodemus as a dissembler (Eire, 243). The cowardly Nicodemus became a faithful man. He even describes his contemporaries as “pseudo-Nicodemites” because at least Nicodemus came forward to identify openly with Jesus. By 1562 he stopped using it as an epithet altogether. Nevertheless, we persevere if only for the ease of the label. He identified 4 different classes of Nicodemites:

  1. Those who do it for money
  2. Those who try to convert high-born ladies, but who do not take the gospel seriously.
  3. Those who try to reduce Christianity to a philosophy
  4. Those merchants and common people who fear danger.

Not everyone in Paris was pleased with Calvin’s critiques. Some, of a certain social status, felt he was rocking the boat too much. They thought he was too harsh. The more they complained, the more Calvin pushed. “When I heard that many people complained about my strictness, especially those kinds of people who think that their wisdom increases proportionately to the care they take in protecting their lives, I wrote an apology which made their ears twitch even harder than the first book….” (Letter to Luther; Eire, 246). Calvin was less worried about what French elites thought than what Christ thinks.

The problem of the refusal of crypto-evangelicals to come out of the Roman church and into the confessing Protestant churches (and especially into the Reformed Churches) troubled Calvin enough to cause him to write on the topic repeatedly and to publish several letters and other short writings through his career until the early ‘60s.

In the 1562 treatise he concluded, “That if no service is agreeable to God, except that which comes from an honest conviction: the opposite holds true, that no simulation can displease him, when one only pretends to adore the idols without having devotion in order to please the unbelievers.”

For Calvin, one cannot separate body and soul. They can be distinguished, but Calvin was an anti-Gnostic. We are embodied persons. We cannot worship Christ with our “souls” if our bodies are in the wrong place at the wrong time, doing the wrong thing (violating his moral will). It’s a 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 problem. It’s one thing to eat meat offered to idols. It’s another thing to sit at table with one who involves one in his offering. Once it’s not just a meal anymore, then we have communion with idols and, for Calvin, as for Paul, one cannot be joined to Christ and to idols.

In France and in modern Belgium there were a considerable number of people who privately, personally identified with Reformed or evangelical theology (in the 16th century “evangelical” meant confessional Lutheran or Reformed theology. Calvin frequently spoke of “the evangelical” view when describing his view of this or that) but they did so without leaving their local Roman congregation. These churches were the status quo. They had family ties or political connections or perhaps there was no local Reformed congregation with which to identify. In some cases to leave the Roman Church meant leaving a Roman city and moving to an “evangelical” city where there was a Reformed congregation. In some cases the local Roman Cathedral was the local mega-church. It was the biggest or best show in town. After all, a high mass was quite a sight. It was high, visual drama. It produced intense religious feelings, people “experienced” God.  It was the “place to be” and the “place to be seen.” But what about those poor souls who weren’t allowed to “by the papists to worship God purely”?

Calvin said the answer is easy, “if their hearts were fully resolved to follow everything that God declares to them completely and unquestioningly.”  The problem is “most men , having learned a thing to be displeasing to God, nevertheless give themselves leave to go seeking its defence.” [sic] Calvin said that “a hundred people” had asked him about this in the same way Balaam asked God for leave to go before King Balak (Num 22). He knew it was contrary to God’s will but he asked anyway. In the same way, crypto-evangelicals (my term; perhaps better than “Nicodemites” and in our case we might speak of “crypto-Calvinists”) attend the mega-church because of the youth group or or the praise and worship or what have you.  Calvin says these folk are “fairly convinced in their consciences that it is wrong to bow down before idols , inquire and query about what they should do, and not to subdue their affections to God by submitting to his word, but so that they may have free rein, and having an answer to their liking, may flatter themselves enough to remain in their evil doing.” He says that this lot is looking for “cushions to put their consciences to sleep, and for someone to make them believe they are alive when really they are dead.”

Remember, he was speaking to people who were “not allowed” to worship God according to the Scriptures. In some cases obeying God would have meant tremendous hardship and possibly the most extreme hardship: arrest, imprisonment, torture, and death. In the 16th century probably no fewer than 62,000 Calvinists were martyred for the faith by Roman authorities. Tens of thousands of those died in one week, in 1572, during the “St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.” The rest were systematically hunted and murdered by Spanish troops in the Netherlands. In many places, knowing the Calvinist and Reformed conviction that only God’s Word may be sung in worship (and that often meant the psalms), authorities banned the singing of psalms and then, when Christians were found to be singing the psalms, they arrested them. When people were converted through watching the Calvinists go to the stake singing God’s praise in his own Word, in their own language, the Roman authorities began cutting out the tongues of the martyrs to prevent them from praising God.

Calvin was well aware of what he was about to ask of the crypto-Calvinists or secret Calvinists. He wrote letters of comfort to some of them as they languished in dark, rat-infested prisons, awaiting a sham trial and a bloody, fiery death. He also understood that what he was saying was controversial. Some influential Parisian Protestants thought or alleged that he was saying that the only way to go to heaven was to be a member of the Genevan church. Of course he was not saying that at all. Some of Calvin’s critics were misrepresenting his argument in order to discredit it. They were attempting to justify themselves. At the same time, despite their scorn, he was loving them. He was concerned that those Roman Catholics who did not “come out” of the Roman communion and identify publicly with the evangelical (in the 16th-century sense, which today would mean “confessional Protestant” or as the Synod of Dort put, “who profess the Reformed Religion”) church would find themselves in genuine spiritual danger.

This attempt to discredit Calvin was, of course, self-serving since some of these folk were well placed and would have suffered significant personal setbacks and loss by leaving Rome and uniting with the suffering French Reformed Church.  Despite the scorn, Calvin persevered.

However, since our office is to give pure testimony to the truth, I cannot dissemble or draw back from saying what I think of things which are useful to know, even when it is required of me to do so. However, since the whole difficulty stems from our being more interested in remaining the good graces of the world than in pleasing God, I exhort every believer in the name of the Lord Jesus to compel his affections to, in order to make them obedient to the Master’s will.

He understood

it is a hard thing to put oneself in danger of losing body and goods, of arousing everyone’s ire against oneself, of being held in contempt and scorned, of leaving the land where one can live comfortably in order to depart for a strange land, like someone lost. Yes, what is the first lesson we must learn in the school of Jesus Christ, but to renounce ourselves?

In contemporary evangelicalism, words such as “mortification”  and “self-denial” are not fashionable. One is much more likely to hear about “self-affirmation’ and improving one’s “self-image.” To be sure, as a pastor and as one who grew up in the lower Midwest, where everyone is or used to be, as Garrison Keillor says, “a dark Lutheran,” (even those who aren’t Lutherans) people do suffer real damage to their self-image and there is psychological harm done by sin and by sinners. Nevertheless, the fundamental Christian message is not, “You’re okay, I’m okay,” but “God made us good, we fell, Christ obeyed and died for sinners and was raised on the third day for their justification.” Our self-image rests in the image of God and in his grace in Christ.

For Calvin, denying to self, dying to sin (mortification) was of the essence of the Christian life. We do by God’s grace alone. It’s a catch-22. The crypto-evangelicals (or today’s crypto-Reformed) aren’t going to grow as they ought in their present circumstances but they won’t really grow until they leave. They need to leave to grow but in order to leave they need to trust Christ enough (which implies growth) to leave!

Indeed, no one but Calvin is calling them to identify  with Christ, to suffer, to change. The current congregations and their friends are all telling them to stay, that religion is a private matter, an interior matter. But real mortification is interior with exterior consequences. Comfort is borne of security and familiarity, even when that comfort and familiarity are wrongly, even wickedly placed.

Calvin understood:

Now, if there are some who are so weak, that they cannot determine from the word ‘go’ to do what they should, I beseech them at least not to flatter themselves, looking for subterfuges and frivolous excuses to conceal themselves. This is nothing but reckoning without one’s host. Such ways of escape shall not deliver them fro God’s judgment.

He knew whereof he spoke. There was a period of murkiness as he became an evangelical. There must have been a period of transition in Paris, an inward wrestling with whether or when to stop attending Mass. Whether and when to identify with the evangelicals. How? Where? At what cost? His public identification with the evangelical church in Geneva, his virtual imprisonment by Farel, being pressed into service in Geneva against his will, having been unceremoniously dismissed by the City Council and then recalled from a much more pleasant place–Calvin only wanted to study and write–these were all crosses he bore. He considered that living in Geneva was like being crucified 1000 times a day. He did it at the expense of his own health, his own happiness, his own peace of mind, against his better judgment and personal inclinations, because his Savior did it for him.

He writes, “Indeed, we shall see that this has been, as it were, the part of the ruin of those who have become alienated from the grace of God: seeing that it was not safe for them to reveal themselves openly before men as true servants of god, in order to duly honor him, and they wanted to be considered just and above reproach because they polluted themselves in many idolatries. ” This passage from Calvin’s 1543 short treatise against the Nicodemites or the crypto-evangelicals who refused to leave the Roman communion and identify openly with the Reformation cause illustrates two very important Reformed doctrines.

First, because we do not know the divine decree ahead of time, we must deal with life in the covenant of grace as it unfolds before us. Call this the “Hebrews 6/10” view of the church, i.e. this is the view taken in Hebrews chapters 6 and 10. People are in the external covenant community, they “taste of the powers of the age to come” and the “trample underfoot” the covenant when they apostatize. When they are with us, professing faith, we regard them as believers, as members of Christ according to the judgment of charity. After they have apostatized, however, we realize that, in fact, they were only members externally, that they lacked true faith and genuine union with Christ.

So, for Calvin, it was with the crypto-evangelicals who remained in false churches. He was willing to accept the genuineness of their profession provisionally and to be understanding about the difficulties they faced in leaving their current congregation in order to join a true church. At a certain point, however, the understanding changes. If the profession is never matched by action a discontinuity arises. They say that they are Protestants (evangelicals) but they continue to worship outwardly like Romanists, they continue to attend mass, they continue to participate in the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ (Session 22, Council of Trent, Canon 3)—which Calvin and all the Protestants regarded as an abomination to God and “an accursed idolatry” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 80).

In view of the existential reality of the outward reality of their evangelical profession Calvin warned of the very real possibility of their “ruin” and becoming “alienated” from grace. This is a genuine spiritual danger to the Nicodemites or the crypto-evangelicals. This is also a genuine danger to the crypto-Calvinists in the evangelical mega-churches and other congregations that lack the marks of a true church, in which the crypto-Calvinists find themselves. How long can they sit through therapeutic, moralistic, Deistic sermons and worship without doing real harm to themselves? I’ve had correspondence from people in such circumstances and they testify that the are “dead inside” and that they “dread” going to church. Sometimes they just stop going. After all, if what happens on Sunday morning is a poor imitation of Oprah or George Will, what’s the point?

The second truth here, however, is reflected in Calvin’s phrase, “as it were.” This is the difference between Calvin’s handling of this problem and the way the so-called, self-described Federal Vision movement handles this same situation. The FV says that every baptized person is, by virtue of his baptism, united to Christ. They reject any distinction between those who are merely outward members of the visible church or of the administration of the covenant of grace, and those who are outward and inward members [Rom 2:28] of the church and the covenant of grace. Because they reject this distinction they have it that one can be actually united to Christ, elect, regenerate, justified, adopted etc and yet still fall away. In this view their view is formally like the Remonstrants who were rejected at the Synod of Dort.

Calvin and the Reformed Churches understood, however, that only those who are actually united to Christ, sola gratia et sola fide  (by grace alone and through faith alone) in Christ alone, are actually united to Christ and receive his benefits. This is because Calvin and the Reformed Churches made a distinction between the two ways of being in the one covenant of grace. Not everyone who participates in the administration of the covenant of grace is necessarily elect, regenerate, or united to Christ. This is the force Calvin’s little phrase, “as it were.” All forms of rationalism, whether Open Theism or the FV, ignore this “as it were” qualification. The Heidelberg Catechism says “by his hand, as it were…” signaling that we understand that God, considered apart from the incarnation, does not have a body. We are not Mormons.

When Calvin wrote “as it were,” he recognized the tentative nature of human judgment in this world. He recognized that we are not God and that we do not know things as God knows them. We make the best judgments we can and we urge folk to live according to God’s self-disclosure (Deut 29:29) in God’s Word. We do not play “guess the elect.”  Christ has a church, and it exists where ever the gospel is preached purely, where ever the sacraments are administered purely, and where ever discipline is administered. From all one can tell these are not the three marks of most so-called evangelical congregations today. They are marked by programs, power points, and puppets.

Lest my evangelical friends think I’m being too hard on then, I well recognize that too many nominally Reformed or Presbyterian congregations are indistinguishable from the great mass of therapeutic, moralistic Deism that passes for Christianity in our age. It may well be possible to be a crytpo-Calvinist in a nominally Reformed or Presbyterian congregation where the substance of the Reformed theology, piety, and practice has been replaced with weak alternatives.

Calvin continued:

Then later, seeing that they still could not avoid all suspicion in this way, they considered it to be doing their duty when they concealed their Christianity altogether, not speaking a single word about God, except when they were with their close friends and family members, well enclosed in some room. Meanwhile, they permitted the truth of God to be blasphemed and whatever dishonor anyone did Jesus Christ, not only did they not say anything against it, but they put on a good show of consenting to it, being concerned only to take care that no one perceive that they were Christians.

Remember, when he said “Christianity,” he’s not speaking about people living in a predominantly pagan world or in a post-Christian culture (or in a pre-Christian culture). He’s speaking about crypto-evangelicals who are, for reasons of safety or comfort, hiding in Roman congregations. The blasphemies to which he refers are either Roman criticisms of the evangelical (i.e. confessional Protestant) faith or/and the Roman doctrine of the eucharistic sacrifice and the like.

In response, the cryptos clam up. If they do not say anything then no one will know that they dissent inwardly. When folk around them slander the evangelicals or invoke saints or pray to the BVM, they keep their mouths shut.  Calvin reminded the cryptos that, in redemptive history, God dealt harshly with those who practiced “wicked subtlety,” that God “let them stumble into a n abyss of darkness, depriving them of the knowledge he had formerly given them.”

The proper response is not that one should seek to “justify himself in his iniquity” but rather that we should “give glory to God” by “confessing our wretchedness, rather than doubly confounding and condemning ourselves by squirming about  and seeking vain excuses.”

Over the years I have had posts from crypto-Calvinists who hide themselves in the local megachurch. Sometimes they seek to justify themselves by arguing that they are seeking reformation of the congregation. If so, then they are not really “crypto” (secret) Calvinists or Reformers at all, are they? If they are seeking reformation then the ministers and congregational leadership will be aware of them and of their efforts. If this megachurch is worth its salt as a megachurch, they have a plan and they have read the church growth literature. Rule #1 of the church growth program is to get rid of dissenters. Any “reformer” worth his salt is a dissenter from the tawdry songs, puppets, Playdoh, and powerpoint that passes for public piety in the megachurch. Immovable object meet irresistible force. Something has to give. Maybe the megachurch leadership will be struck in the heart but maybe not. What then? Most of the time, however, the cryptos remain just that: hidden, quiet, secret.

For Calvin, the core issue of the Nicodemite (crypto-evangelical) problem is the Lordship of Christ, not necessarily in the sense in which that word was used in the recent American evangelical controversy but in the sense that the cryptos are acting as if they were God’s “counterparts.”  The issue is whether the Christian will submit to the revealed will of God. He appealed to the example of Cyprian to illustrate what he meant obedience. He reminds his readers that “St. Cyprian, after being condemned to death, because he was unwilling to sacrifice to idols, was asked to consent to it in order to save his life.” The judge did not want to put Cyprian to death and urged him to simply say the magic words. Cyprian, however, was so determined to follow God’s will that he would do it even if death was the necessary result. For Calvin, Cyprian is a perfect example of one who “did not take counsel from” his “own” head, “turning aside from his Word….”  Calvin offered several proofs that, in fact, it is the Lord’s revealed, moral will for the cryptos to identify publicly with the Reformation. First he appealed to Jesus saying in Luke 9:26 that “if we are ashamed of him before me, he will likewise be ashamed of us when he appears in his majesty with the angels of God.” He appealed to Romans 10:10, that if we “believeth with the heart unto righteousness” then one will confess “with the mouth unto salvation.” True faith produces confession.  “Whoever draws back from doing so must seek another master.”

Calvin anticipated the objection that he was attempting to make all believers into preachers. Not at all. “For, since it is a particular office to preach publicly, it is not necessary, nor even expedient or suitable for everyone to intrude himself in it….I do not therefore mean for everyone to climb up into a pulpit to prove their Christianity…. However, let everyone take thought to give God glory in the vocation in which he finds himself.”

He would have it that every professing Christian should confess his faith in the place and station in which he finds himself. He appeals to 1 Peter 3:15. We should each be ready to give an account of his faith. It is “the office of every believer” to “take his neighbor by the hand and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of Zion, to the house of Jacob, and he shall teach us to talk in his ways (Isa 23:3; Mic 4:2).

What does this have to do with crypto-Calvinists in the local evangelical congregation? Well, the fundamental point, about submitting to the revealed will of God applies to all Christians everywhere but particularly where a crypto-Calvinist finds himself in a congregation dominated by therapeutic, moralistic deism, where the gospel is absent, the means of grace are deformed or ignored, and discipline was banished by the church growth gurus as impractical.

Calvin did not call the cryptos in his day to superhuman feats. He only wanted them to speak to the truth in love and to trust the providence of God. It’s true he was, in effect, calling many to great suffering and possible even death. In our case, however, there is much less at stake and even less reason why our cryptos cannot confess their faith openly before men, since, in many cases, it merely involves stopping at that local NAPARC congregation by which they drive on the way to the mega-church.

Once more an admonition to my NAPARC brothers and sisters. If our evangelical crypto-Calvinists do step out in faith to lay hold of the blessings of the heritage of the Reformation, what will they find this Sabbath in your congregation? Will they find what they just left behind, cliques, clans, and clowns or will they find the law distinguished from the gospel and the latter preached sweetly? Will they find joy in the Lord or some nasty congregational contention over who is in charge? Will they find a socio-political rant or the ministry of Christ? When they visit, our evangelical friends are looking for three things: the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and discipline. Indeed, that is what the Lord asks of us. It doesn’t seem unreasonable that we should be doing these things, even if no crypto-Calvinists visit.

Calvin recognized that there is a certain degree of subjectivity in deciding “how far and how much we must proceed….” Therefore each one must “pray our Lord to direct him in true prudence, in order to judge what will be suitable.” For Calvin, the driving principle, is the same in any case: “there must be in us such a seal, both exalt the reign of God and to edify our neighbors, that we extend all our powers and apply all our efforts to it.” In other words, because Calvin wouldn’t go beyond Scripture and good and necessary deductions and because he recognized that circumstances would vary he was unwilling to legislate exactly how each one must act in every case. Nevertheless, it was clear to Calvin that each one must act.Our goal is the appropriate imitation of Christ, who was consumed by zeal for the house of God (Ps 69:9; John 2:17). This zeal caused Christ to be restless in his desire to glorify and serve his Father. Calvin reminds us that some of his followers “did not dare to confess Jesus Christ after having believed on him: ‘They loved the glory of men better than that of God’ (John 12:43). How sad and perverse a choice is it to prefer men to God!”

The question, for Calvin and for us, is “whether the Christian man, being rightly instructed in the truth of the gospel, offends God or not, by doing as the others do when he is among Papists, by going to Mass and other such ceremonies.” The first part of the question is that of “dissumulation” or “hiding the truth one has within the heart. The second part concerns “simulation” or “pretending and faking something that is not so. In short, what lying is in words, simulation is in deeds.”

This a question because we are not disembodied. We are not Gnostics seeking to overcome the body (contrary to the repeated Romanist criticism of historic, confessional Protestantism). Rather, Calvin recognized that because we are body and soul we must love God with our bodies and our souls. We owe to God a “two-fold honor—namely the spiritual service of the heart, and outward worship — likewise there is a, on the contrary, a twofold sort of idolatry. First, when man corrupts and perverts the spiritual service of the only God by a lying fantasy. The other sort is when he transfers to some creature, such as an image, the honor which belongs to God alone.”

To those crypto-Calvinists in broad, mega, “evangelical,” congregations which offer neither the “evangel,” or are hardly “congregations,” (but rather a collection of “venues” — someone recently asked one of our members which “venue” he attended? Puzzled, this member said, “Well, the worship venue.” “Which one is that? Do they serve coffee? Is there a praise band?” “No,” the member replied, “It’s the whole congregation together, worshiping God, singing psalms, listening to the sermon.” Talk about a clash of paradigms. Our member was mystified by the “venue question and the broad evangelical fellow was completely mystified by historic Reformed worship) the question remains. There may not be the memorial, ritual, propitiatory sacrifice of the mass but there there are “dramas” and there is clowning, and Narcissism and the trivialization of God and of his Christ so that the service is hardly recognizably “Christian”  any longer. Few strangers are in jeopardy of walking into such services and of being confronted by the awful reality of the living God so that they might want to throw themselves to the ground (1 Cor 14:25).

In their own ways the broad “evangelical” seeker service (with all its venues) and the Roman Mass seek to tame God. Since Rome made Jesus so utterly transcendent (because of their Christology and their piety) his place as a truly human Mediator was taken by saints and the BVM. By transubstantiation God the Son becomes manageable. The Mass, confession, and penance are all things that we do. We process in, we adore, we remember, we offer. So too in the evangelical megachurch, we worship, we praise, we experience, we entertain, we choose the venue by which we shall approach God. Different dramas, same story.

The God is scripture is not manageable. He has a nasty tendency to “break out” against sin or trivialization. The golden calf trivialized God. The golden calf made them comfortable. It allowed them to approach God on terms that were familiar. The God of history, the God of Scripture, the God who is, however, will not be approached, not that way. He comes to us on his terms and calls us to respond, to come to him, on his terms. There are no venues for approaching God except humble and holy worship in response to his Law and his Gospel. Calvin understood this and knew that God, the God of Scripture, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

To illustrate and prove the connection between inward and outward piety, between body and soul, Calvin turned to 1 Corinthians 8. When eating food offered to idols leads others to worship the idols it’s obvious that eating the food isn’t innocent. At stake is the spiritual well being of “one for whom Christ died.” The case is even clearer in 1 Corinthians 10. Participating in ritual sacrifices to God makes one a “partaker of the true consecration” and participating in sacrifices to idols also makes one a participant in idolatry. The true worship of the true God is exclusive. It is impossible to worship the true God false or to truly worship a false god. “Whoever takes the one, utterly renounces the other.” That principle of exclusivity alone explains Daniel and his companions. Were it otherwise they would have been able “to escape by this subtlety.” Indeed, were it otherwise it would have been foolish for them to “expose themselves to death.”They could have said, “others will worship the statue, nut  our spirit shall be lifted up to heaven to worship the living God….” Either they were guilty of “ill considered zeal” or the Nicodemites are wrong.

What about the ordinary, mere Christian? After all, “not everyone can be so steadfast?” Calvin accused those who make such pleas  of “seeking cover-ups for our sins….” They argue that 1 Corinthians 10 was about rank paganism, not about the Roman mass and, however corrupt, the intention of the mass is to worship the God. It seems to them that “there is not so great a danger in partaking in idolatry which is cloaked in the name of God….” To which he responded by pointing to the example of the brass serpent (Num 21:8). Here is an example of a “holy sacrament of Jesus Christ” instituted by God that had been corrupted into idolatry. They too “pleaded the fair colors of the name of God.” Then there is the case of the golden calf (Ex 32) which was “designed to represent” God.” Nevertheless it was “false and perverse” and idolatry.  The same was true of the calves erected by Jereboam at Bethel and Dan (1 Kgs 12:28). They were dedicated to the worship of God and yet they were idolatrous. The same was true of the temple in Samaria. It was not dedicated to Jupiter, but to God.  “I therefore conclude that it is no more permitted to partake in idolatry wich has the name of God imposed upon it than if it was purely something of the Saracens [i.e., Muslims] or pagans.”

What Calvin saw, which we in our late modern subjectivist time have difficulty seeing, is that intention is not everything, it doesn’t change the truth, the reality. Christ died for our bodies and our souls and demands that we return to him true, grateful worship without bodies and souls, inwardly and outwardly. There is more to worship than intention. Actions matter. Location matters. There is an objective reality that cannot be denied. Participating in false worship, however sincerely, is still participating in false worship. It offends God and hurts other Christians. For Calvin it was indefensible on both grounds.

He  recognized that difference between some of the biblical narratives and his own time and yet he also recognized that some of the narratives described situations quite like his. Mutatis mutandis (with the changes having been changed), he moved from the biblical narratives to his own time. If there were difficulties for Calvin so there are for us. This series is not aimed at Roman Christians who profess the Reformed faith but to those in nominally evangelical congregations where the preaching of the gospel has been replaced with therapy and the sacraments are absent or corrupt and where the 2nd commandment isn’t even a distant memory. Yes, these congregations may be nominally Protestant, but how different are they really from those of which Calvin was thinking? The most fundamental issue remains the same: the ostensible good intention of private worship in a corrupt congregation that has rejected reformation is corrupt whatever the private intention of the crypto-Calvinist.

Sometimes it seems as if Calvin were living in our day. Sometimes his criticism of our hypocrisy is so penetrating that it’s hard to believe that it was written more than 400 years ago. The next section in his Short Treatise (1543) is a good example. He addressed first those who “wish to be perceived as more devout than others” who attend the “daily” mass. “Anyone who has made modest progress in the gospel knows that what the priest does there is sacrilege and abomination.” For Calvin it was obvious that it was the moral equivalent of prostrating oneself “before an idol.” It was sin. It was partaking of the “useless works of darkness” (Eph 5:11). How can one participate in it, pretend “to acknowledge it” then later wash ones hands of it? Does God see nothing? Here Calvin penetrated the heart: “But they say, ‘We are not the ones who commit the evil. What more can we do, since it is not up to us to correct it?’ I answer that the evil that I reprove in them is that they do not abstain from what they know to be bad….”

The “parochial Mass” (weekly) is a similar case. The Nicodemite defends himself by arguing that at least there, despite the great corruption, they may participate in the Supper “‘because it is a memorial to us of the Supper of the Lord, we take it thus.’” Calvin replied to the crypto-evangelical, “Indeed? Can we thus transform things to our taste, and say that darkness is light?” Once more his arrow hit dead center. Ours is an age of extreme subjectivism, i.e. the thought and attitude that says that how one experiences something (or someone) is the most important thing. Indeed, in our time, it is widely held that experience determines reality. Of course this is complete rubbish and is easily shown to be so. Try “experiencing” a red light as a green light. Try explaining to the nice police officer that you experienced the light as green and that it was green for you. In response, he will explain that he is writing you a citation for $271 and that the law expects your experience to conform to objective reality henceforth.

What is fascinating here is that, in the crypto-evangelicals, Calvin faced the very same subjectivism that dominates American religion and particularly the religion of American “evangelicals,” including that of our “crypto-Calvinists” who make the very same argument in defense of their remaining in the mega-church, multi-venue worship services. Since they receive the service in a certain way, it is that way to them.

Calvin was not having any of it:

I ask you, what similarity is there between the holy sacrament instituted by the Lord Jesus, and this mixture made up of all sorts of garbage? First do they thing it’s nothing that the Mass is accounted a sacrifice, whereby God is appease not only concerning the living, but also concerning the dead? Is it nothing that the canon, which is the main substance of the Mass, is full of abominable blasphemies? Again, is it nothing that the prayer is made for the souls in purgatory, which we know to be utterly superstitious? However, were there only the diabolical delusion of sacrificing Jesus Christ to God, so that such a work could a satisfaction and payment for the living and the dead, this is not altogether a patent renunciation of his death and passion, which is nullified if one does not recognize it as a unique and perpetual sacrifice? Is it not a direct corruption of his sacred Supper? Certainly these to such execrable pollutions cannot be separated from the Mass anymore than heat can be separated from fire.

The objective facts of the Roman Mass are too plain to be denied. Our experience does not create or norm reality. God spoke creation into existence. Certainly we do experience reality, but our experience of it isn’t normative. We cannot transform, as if by fiat, sins into righteousness, whether those sins be part of the parochial mass or the “evangelical” skit. Are puppets, playdoh, and powerpoint really any better than the sorts of things about which Calvin complained concerning the Roman Mass?

Finally, we should not miss the obvious tension that now exists between Calvin’s (and that of Reformed orthodoxy) understanding of the Roman Mass and the understanding that which is being promoted in certain borderline (see Recovering the Reformed Confession, 1-2, 169) Reformed communions. They cannot both be right. Either the Roman Mass includes an ostensible memorial, propitiatory, sacrifice or it does not. The Council of Trent, Session 22, in 1562 declared that the Eucharist is a propitiatory sacrifice. It condemned anyone who denied that doctrine. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) perpetuates that dogma. That is what Calvin, who was raised in the Roman Communion, was taught and that is the view he rejected as completely inimical to biblical doctrine of the Supper. The Heidelberg Catechism rejected the same doctrine in Q. 80. The Reformed did not misrepresent the the Roman doctrine and practice. As with the doctrine of justification, it seems that their desire to be ecumenical has caused our friends to attempt to transform (to use Calvin’s word) certain unpleasant realities in the Roman doctrine and practice in order to justify their ecumenism.

[This essay was first published serially in 2009 and appears here slightly revised]

Why the Mission Needs the Marks

Doubtless the one of the most significant movements within evangelicalism at the moment is the “emergent” or “emerging churches” movement. The adjectives “emerging” and “emergent” designate different wings of the movement. Generally, the “emergent” wing is more radical and the “emerging” wing a little less radical. Just as frequently, however, in the contemporary rhetoric from both wings of the movement no distinction is made and this essay will speak of the “emerging movement” (hereafter, EM). Like their older evangelical brothers and sisters, the EM also rejects (at least elements of) fundamentalism and revivalism. In their place, they are constructing a cross-traditional, eclectic synthesis. Christianity Today writer Andy Crouch describes the approach to worship and theology of Mars Hill Bible Church (Grand Rapids) as simultaneously “echoing and subverting a fashion-driven culture of cool.”1 This hip veneer covers an intentional theological synthesis. As pastor Rob Bell puts it,

We’re re-discovering Christianity as an Eastern religion, as a way of life. Legal metaphors for faith don’t deliver a way of life. We grew up in churches where people knew the nine verses why we don’t speak in tongues, but had never experienced the overwhelming presence of God.2

An eclectic approach to Christianity, with somewhat different results, also marks Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy, in which he describes himself simultaneously as a “missional, evangelical, Post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed-yet-hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian.”3 Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger characterize the EM thus:

Emerging churches are communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures. This definition encompasses nine practices. Emerging (1) churches identify with the life of Jesus, (2) transform the secular realm, and (3) live highly communal lives. Because of these activities, they (4) welcome the stranger, (5) serve with generosity, (6) participate as producers, (7) create as created beings, (8) lead as a body, and (9) take part in spiritual activities.4

Scot McKnight gives his own list of 5 characteristics. The emerging churches (which he distinguishes from “emergent” churches) are “prophetic (or at least provocative). They are “postmodern,” “praxis-oriented,” “post-evangelical,” and “political.”5

The Problem of Defining “Missional”
If the EM is hard to define, it is even more difficult to understand what they mean by the word “missional.”  Perhaps no single word in the EM is used more than the word “missional.” No single word is more central to their identity and purpose and yet it is not easy to find them defining the word “missional.”  They often use it as a crucial qualifier for their understanding of Scripture or the Christian faith. For example, on his blog, Scot McKnight has been publishing a series of studies called “Missional Jesus” wherein Jesus life and ministry are analyzed in “missional terms,” with the result that Jesus appears quite similar to the EM movement. Judging by the accounts by the EM and judging by their characterizations of the adjective “missional,” the two seem to be used as synonyms. In other words, if one will be genuinely “missional” one must agree with the EM theology. Further, if we compare the basic attributes of the EM’s self-description with the accounts given by scholars of pietism they are virtually identical.6 Thus, in other words, to be identified with the EM is to be missional and viewed historically, the EM/Missional movements, are simply contemporary ways of re-stating Pietism. For all the new rhetoric, what we have is, at bottom, an argument between those who value religious experience as the highest good and those who, while valuing religious experience—I call to the stand the Heidelberg Catechism, William Perkins, and John Owen—value an objective theology, piety, and practice above subjective religious experience.

What are confessional Reformed Christians to do with these movements and particularly with this adjective “missional”? This essay argues that we must do two things: First, if we are to apply it to ourselves, we must challenge the prevailing EM definition of “missional.” Second, we must recognize that the Reformed theology, piety, and practice presents a clear alternative to the EM definition of “missional” because, unlike the EM, Reformed theology has a doctrine of the church, which confesses that it is in and through the church that the Triune God is accomplishing his mission. For us to say “the mission needs the marks,” is to say that without the visible, institutional church, there is no mission. In order to have a proper definition of what it is to be “missional” we must have a proper definition of what the church is.

First, the definition of the adjective “missional.” There is a some controversy in the EM over whether the word “missional” is being “co-opted” by folk such as we who are not entitled to use it. Anthony Bradley asks whether the term “missional” was being “hijacked” by traditionalists of various sorts. He raises the question whether “missional” types need another adjective to describe themselves.7 He complains about the fact that “Church Growth” guys are now using the term. He cites a document by Tim Keller—who actually provides something of a definition of “Missional”8 and says the term is being co-opted by “the traditional/seeker/program oriented ‘ministries’ driven church”).9 The problem, he says, is that none of these folks are genuinely “missional.”  He asks, “Can you really be missional if your personal relationships are confined to the Christian shire? If your church has no non-Christians attending? If adult baptisms of the unchurched aren’t a regular occurrence, if the church is not serving the needs of the local community, etc?”  The folks at “Reformergent” define missional as:

Social action, community involvement, and sacrificial hospitality is primary in lifestyle living. There is once again an interest in being light and salt in a broken world. This involves primarily politics and culture. Although the emerging church sometimes lacks an emphasis on evangelism as part of missional living, there is still value in their approach to how we can be ‘in this world, and not of it.’10

They give three marks of what it means to be “emergent” and “missional.” Those marks are a concern for “social justice,” “authenticity,” and an “unstructured ecclesiology.”11

It should be clear by now that the definition of “missional” raises serious questions. What is at stake here is the very nature of Christianity. This is not simply my assessment; this is the assessment of leaders of the EM. For example, in response to Driscoll’s criticisms, Doug Pagitt says, “I think that we’re basically talking about two different versions of Christianity” and Tony Jones agrees.12 Spencer Burke, says that his goal is to radically re-shape the visible, institutional church. He says,

I challenge the institutional church, where are you spending your R&D [research and development] money now? … If it’s trying to figure out the next big church, I think you should not spend your money that way. … I actually believe that you will see major organizations in the next few years investing in R&D because of the missional question … because of the things they are discovering now…13

Confessional Reformed churches should share this concern. It is a fair question whether building mega-churches is the mission of the church. As he continues, the picture becomes clearer:

I really believe the institutional church will die to itself … even though it will destroy our Sunday morning event … even though it will mean no longer investing in training biblical teachers for the one-hour event … for the greater good, the greater cause, the missional opportunity….14

Let me be clear, if Reformed folk are to apply the adjective “missional” to themselves, it must be defined clearly and that definition must be quite distinct from that used by the EM. Indeed, if we are to use it to describe ourselves we must, to use Bradley’s terms, hijack it or co-opt it.

Let’s us begin doing so. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it in this use as an adjective relating to missions or missionary work, but this is not what the EM means by it. According to the EM, Sunday mornings are no longer considered the Christian Sabbath or the Lord’s Day morning, the day of public worship, the divinely appointed time and place for the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. Sunday morning is just an event and not even a “missional” event at that! Tripp Fuller says,

There is much to learn and keep from the Reformation, a movement that was thoroughly modern, but there is reason to give pause to returning to it with a clenched fist. Right now I think the last thing the Church needs are white dudes with clinched fists, especially when what they are clenching is ‘God’s Truth.’ Throughout modernity white Dudes have had God’s truth in their hands too much, and behind them are ditches filled with God’s and/or their enemies. (This confusion is easy when you have truth tightly gripped in a fist.) … I am confident that, as the Church finds its bearing in a new world, we don’t need any more clinched fists, for it is God’s world and God’s truth after all.15

We see a similar anti-ecclesiastical approach to mission in The Missional Church edited by Darrell L. Guder and co-written by five different authors.16  They agree with many of the EM writers who reject the “Western mission” as a “European-church-centered enterprise.”17 In its place they seek a “theocentric reconceptualization of Christian mission.”18 In the EM/Missional movements there is a turning away from the church as organization and toward the church as organism. They regard the institutional church as a remnant of “Christendom,” the medieval church-state complex.19 Many of the EM/Missional theorists seem to accept, to greater and lesser degrees, the nineteenth-century theory that the apostolic church was purely kerygmatic and charismatic and that organization was a later, post-apostolic corruption of authentic Christianity.20 On that premise they seek to recover some version of primitive Christianity. In the chapter on the church drafted by George Hunsberger, Missional Church contrasts the a missional approach to the doctrine of the church with the “heritage of a functional Christendom and forms of church life shaped by modern notions of voluntary association and rational organization.”21 This is at least partly true and helpful, but they continue by calling into question the very notion of the “marks of the church.” They write that, though the Reformers did not intend it, the result of speaking of “the marks of the true church” has been that Protestants have come to think of church as “a place where certain things happen.”22 The argument throughout the chapter is that we must move beyond a conception of the church as a “place where things happen” to a dynamic community caught up in the mission of God in the world. They are more helpful, however, when they note that the verbs most often used by the New Testament in association with the “kingdom of God” and the “kingdom of heaven” are “to receive” and “to enter.”23 That the kingdom is not something we can usher in through evangelism or cultural action is a truly important point.

Finally, in contrast to a good bit of the contemporary literature coming from the EM/missional movements, Christopher J. H. Wright provides one of the most helpful approaches to the question of a missional theology.24  He argues that we should use a “missional” hermeneutic on analogy with our Christocentric hermeneutic.25 Just as we read the Bible to see how it progressively reveals the person of God the Son in Christ through the history of redemption,26 so too we ought to recognize that the mission of God is also progressively revealed in redemptive history.27 Thus, e.g. he distinguishes between the missional character of Israel’s relation to the nations, inasmuch as they existed to fulfill the divine intention, and the Christian mission to preach the gospel to all the nations.28 In that respect, he argues that though it is true to say that the Bible teaches a mission, it is also true that the Bible itself is the product of God’s mission.29 The whole history of redemption is the history of the outworking of the divine plan moving from creation, to fall, to redemption, and finally to glory.30

What the EM/Missional Movement Gets Right
There are a number of fundamental disagreements between the EM/Missional movements and the Reformed confession. Nevertheless, there are at least five points about the EM/Missional movements that confessional Reformed churches should appreciate.

  1. Christendom was a mistake and more importantly we live after Christendom. Christians ought to engage the whole world with all of God’s revelation. The attempt to recapture or reconstitute Christendom is a great diversion from our true vocation and the mission of God at this stage in redemptive history. The gospel may not be safely identified with any particular political program (left, center, or right) and it may not be identified any particular cultural program.
  2. Christianity has always been and will always be a global phenomenon. As we think about our relations to the “mission of God” in the world, we need to reckon with the fact that we are part of a much larger enterprise. We, in North America, are not necessarily the center of world Christianity. For example, we can learn much from our one million brothers and sisters in the Church of Christ Among the Tiv (NKST) in Nigeria about what it means to be truly submissive to the mission of God as they live their faith before a largely hostile and often dangerous culture.
  3. The “mission of God” has very little to do with the contemporary evangelical obsession with programs. The “program-driven” church is probably much more about satisfying the social needs of middle class suburbanites than it is about the mission of the church.
  4. The modern church is too closely associated with particular cultural forms. We are not nearly as critical of our own debt to our own time and place as we need to be.
  5. The modern evangelical church is too easily reckoned as just another voluntary organization. This is why evangelicals shop churches. They do not think of the institutional church as a divine institution to which they have a sacred moral and spiritual obligation and connection. The local congregation has become just another service provider.

What the EM/Missional Movement Gets Wrong
As many things as there are to appreciate about the EM/Missional movements, there are at least nine points of serious disagreement between the Reformed faith and the EM/Missional movements.

  1. The EM/Missional movements are unhelpfully vague about exactly what the “mission” of God is and as a consequence they are unhelpfully vague about what the “mission” of the church is.
  2. When the EM/Missional movements do speak clearly about the mission of the church that mission has precious little to do with the mission of God and the history of redemption and revelation as Reformed churches have understood it. Almost invariably the mission is re-cast in activist, social-gospel, and even Anabaptist terms. This is not my judgment, it is the judgment of EM/Missional advocate Scot McKnight, who says of Brian McLaren’s new book, Everything Must Change: “Truth be told, Brian is an Anabaptist [sic] as I am reading him….”31
  3. The EM and Missional accounts of church history seem unaware of a century of criticism of the old and outdated “Kerygma to dogma” model of church history in which the EM and “Missional” groups attempt to re-capture or re-create the “authentic” “kerygmatic” and socially conscious apostolic communities in our time to get past the ossified “dogma” with which Christianity has been encrusted. I understand why they are attracted to it, since it is just a slightly more sophisticated version of the sort of evangelical and fundamentalist primitivism that they are offering now. The great problem with this model is that it just is not true. The whole Kerygma to dogma model assumed, a priori, that the apostolic church could have no institutions, offices, or organization. Any evidence of such organization only meant that portion of the NT could not be taken to be authentic.The repeated claim that the Reformation was a modern phenomenon has no basis in actual history. The Reformation occurred a century and a half before modernity began to dominate the West. The Reformation and post-Reformation Reformed churches were pre-modern people and they were hotly critical of modernity when it appeared. The leading critics of Rene Descartes were not Pietists, at least not in the conventional sense of the word. The leading critics of modernity, as it began to appear, were the orthodox Reformed. It was the Pietists, the forebears of the EM/Missional movements who conceded Christianity to modernity. The nineteenth-century German liberals who laid waste to the faith, who laid siege against the Scriptures were all the children and grand children of Pietists. The EM/Missional movements seem to be counseling us to drink more deeply from the very wells that brought about the destruction they lament.The great irony of the EM/Missional complaint about orthodoxy as “modernist,” is that the Modern creed had four great points, to which most segments of the EM/Missional movement give assent.
    1.  The Modernist creed confesses the universal Fatherhood of God. In the modernist religion, the utterly transcendent (or immanent) deity is everyone’s God/god in precisely the same way. It is not confessional Calvinism, but the EM/Missional movement that includes universalists in its midst.
    2. The Modernist creed confesses the universal brotherhood of humanity. In the modern religion, all human beings are all one great human family without distinction before the deity in any way. Of course, confessing as we do double predestination and limited atonement, it is unlikely that confessional Calvinism will be confused with modernity, but how distinct from the modern creed is the EM/Missional movement?
    3. The Modernist creed confesses human and social perfectibility. If you are of a certain age, you may remember the slogan, “we’re getting better every way and every day.” As dark Calvinists with our doctrine of the depravity of every human faculty we are not good candidates for alignment with the Modernist creed, but the same cannot be said for many elements of the EM/Missional movement.
    4. The most basic Modernist confession is that of human autonomy, the ability to will the contrary to all other wills, even God, is what makes one human. As confessors of human depravity and divine sovereignty, confessional Reformed theology utterly rejects this foundational Modernist doctrine, which is a significant reason we are seen as unreasonable and even anti-human by Modernists. It is far from clear that the EM/Missional movements find themselves with the same antithesis to Modernity on this basic point.
  4. The EM and “Missional” complaint about the close association of the church with cultural forms could be taken as a form of Gnosticism. Our Lord took on a true human nature. As a true man, born of a virgin, he entered human history, spoke a natural language, and was, as a man, completely embedded in a particular culture and time. He commissioned his apostles, also embedded in a particular culture and time, to preach the gospel that transcends all cultures and times, to every language, tongue, and tribe. The paradox of the mission is that the transcendent, triune God entered history to accomplish the great mission, to redeem his people in the fullness of time, and he committed the proclamation of the reality of that fulfillment to the visible church, which shall always remained embedded in time and history until there is no more time and history.Let us also remember that it was the Anabaptists, with whom the EM/Missional movements seem to be so enamored, who overtly and repeatedly denied the true humanity of Christ and who adopted the Docetic doctrine of the so-called “celestial flesh” of Christ. The Definition of Chalcedon better serves the biblical and holy catholic faith than the Christology of the Anabaptists does.
  5. Though the EM and “missional” movements often write as if they were distinctively post-modern, there is little evidence that they really are genuinely post-modern. In many ways it is not a modern movement, beginning with late modern assumptions. The first “modern” people were the Anabaptists and then the Pietists. It is they who made the faith wholly private and personal and who divorced it from history and made it chiefly about the Quest for the Illegitimate Religious Experience.By “modern” I mean they accept the premise that the subject of the verb is “I.”  This is the great difference between Christian antiquity, where the overwhelming consensus was exactly opposite that of modernity, and modernity. The pre-modern church assumed universally that God had spoken, that his revelation is objective and normative for all people, in all times and places. The great question of Christian antiquity was not whether God has spoken but what has God said.The great modern question is has God really said? Of course that question has ancient and diabolical roots, but never until the Modern period did it become the dominant question, the dominant assumption. It was in reaction to the ascendancy of the modern question and the accompanying assumption of personal autonomy that Christians began to regard the faith not about objective, verifiable historical truths such as creation, redemption, resurrection and return, but about the personal experience of the divine. Calvin and Luther are one thing, and Friedrich Schleiermacher is another. The EM and “Missional” movements have much deeper roots in the liberal Pietism of Schleiermacher than they do in the confessional, churchly Protestantism of Calvin and Luther.
  6. The EM/Missional movements are much to be faulted for their lack of clarity about what the gospel is. The Scriptures are unequivocal that the gospel is the announcement of deliverance from judgment and damnation on the basis of the righteousness of Christ and received through faith alone in Christ and his finished work. This is not the clarion call of the EM/Missional movement.
  7. The EM/Missional movements fail consistently to distinguish between the two kingdoms. According to God’s Word there are two kingdoms in this world, one from heaven and the other of this age. Christians live in both kingdoms simultaneously. The visible, institutional church, the “true church,” represents the spiritual kingdom, the kingdom of God as we confess in the Belgic Confession Art. 29. Here, we should credit the chapter in Missional Church that gets this aspect of the question right.32 Only the baptized live in this kingdom outwardly and only believers inhabit this kingdom spiritually. All humans, however, live in another kingdom, the civil or earthly kingdom and much of that to which the EM/Missional movements are calling the church actually belongs to the civil kingdom. Christians may and should work to alleviate suffering, but the visible, institutional church, as such, is called to only three tasks: To preach the gospel, to administer the sacraments, and to administer discipline. We confess these as the marks of the true church. We confess:

    The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church—and no one ought to be separated from it (Belgic Confession [1561], art. 29).

    When we adopted the three marks of true church, we were in a situation very much like ours today. It was difficult for Christians to know where they should worship and to which institution they should give their allegiance. They needed clear, objective indicators of where the true church could be found. That need has never been greater than it is now. That is why we chose three objective marks that can be tested by empirical evidence. Listen to the sermons, is the gospel preached? That is not a trick question. Either the gospel justification through faith alone in Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension is present or it is not. Are the two sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper administered? By our lights, if as often happens in our hyper-spiritual age, they are absent or fundamentally corrupted in favor of “new measures,” then the church is also absent. Finally, it will become clear soon enough if a congregation is disciplined. If the minister is unaccountable or if there are no elders or gross sin and error are winked at, then there is no discipline.

    It is often said that we should add a fourth mark, If we add to these marks then we gain nothing and risk losing them all. To be sure, there are subsidiary obligations in the church. For example, we must love one another, but there are good reasons why “love” or charity is not a mark of the true church. At first glance, the evidence for making “love” a mark of the church seems overwhelming, after all Paul is very clear in 1 Cor 13 that, whatever else is true of us, if we have not love, we are of little use to the kingdom. The chief problem with adding love or any other virtue to the list of marks is that the list becomes useless. If we make “charity” a mark of the visible church so that one can look at a congregation and determine whether it is a true church on the basis of whether it has love, then who gets to say “how much”? Who gets to define what counts as love and what does not? If we may add “love” as a mark of the church, then why should we not add holiness and if holiness then why not other virtues? On what basis do we stop adding virtues to the list of marks?  We know the answer to that question as soon as we answer another. Which congregation on the face of the earth has all the necessary virtues or even one of them in sufficient quantity to qualify as a true church?

    As it happens, the Reformed churches already considered this question. We assign the virtues to the marks of the Christian. Those marks are also in Belgic Confession Art. 29. “As for those who can belong to the church, we can recognize them by the distinguishing marks of Christians: namely by faith, and by their fleeing from sin and pursuing righteousness, once they have received the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ.”

  8. They love the true God and their neighbors, they love the true God and their neighbors, without turning to the right or left, and they crucify the flesh and its works. In our theology, piety, and practice, there is no question whether faith, hope, and love are necessary. We are not Donatists. The lack of perfection in the saints or even in the ministers does not disqualify the church. What matters most about the church—between Reformed confessionalism and evangelical pietism there is, on this question, fixed an unbridgeable gulf—is what the church confesses, what it preaches, whether and how it administers the holy sacraments, and whether it administers discipline. In our view, however, the visible church, i.e. the congregation of the saints in stated worship services where the Word is preached and the sacraments and discipline are administered are exactly “places where things happens,” and those assemblies are ordinarily the only such places where such things happen.
  9. To say that the mission needs the marks is to say that the mission needs the true church. One of the greatest faults of the EM/Missional movements is that they seem bent on destroying or circumventing the visible church. Perhaps this is because of their context? Perhaps they see the visible church as disposable or worse, as an obstacle, because they are in mainline churches where dead heterodoxy seems to flourish or they are in mega-churches where the main “mission” seems to be to fill the seats?The Reformed understanding of the Scriptures is that mission is impossible without Christ’s visible church just as the accomplishment of redemption was impossible without Christ’s human nature. In Matthew 16 our Lord gave the keys of the kingdom to his designated representatives, to the visible institutional church. He did not give the keys to any other entity. In that sense, then, the visible church is unique among all human institutions in that it alone represents the authoritative, official proclamation of the Gospel of the kingdom. To the visible, institutional church alone Christ gave the power to remit and to bind. In Matthew 18 we see the same pattern. When our Lord instructed his disciples to “tell it to the church” he did not have in mind the “invisible church” of all times and places. He had in mind the visible, local, congregation with officers. Indeed, the Apostles were deeply concerned with the local church as the center of the administration of the kingdom of God on the earth. The Apostle Paul devoted about half or at least a generous portion of most of his epistles to addressing the practical administration and life of visible, true congregations churches. He spent a considerable amount of energy seeing to the preaching of the gospel, the administration of the sacraments, and discipline. Those who denied the humanity of Christ, in the churches of Asia Minor, “went out” from actual congregations because they were never really, spiritually “of” those congregations.
  10. As the intellectual and spiritual children of Pietists and Anabaptists the EM/Missional movements seem to lack altogether a doctrine of what our forefathers called “the means of grace.” The EM/Missional movement seems entirely taken with the modern, pietist, autonomous, and individualistic approach to spirituality and piety. The candles and labyrinths of the EM/Missional piety are just medieval trappings over pietist individualism. The piety and spirituality of the EM/Missional movement is still Bonaventure’s journey of the mind into God or the piety of the ascent of the soul to the divine.Reformed piety is covenantal. It recognizes that God the Son administers his grace through visible means, that we are baptized into a community, that we are redeemed into communities, and that we are brought to faith by the public proclamation of the gospel (Rom 10:17) and that faith is strengthened and confirmed through our baptism and the regular use of the Lord’s Supper. Confessional Protestants confess that every day we repent and die to self and live to Christ and, in that way, we daily renew our baptism. Lord permitting, each week, after we hear the gospel in our ears, we receive it again with our mouths confessing that, as certainly as I receive the elements from the hand of the minister, so surely are the promises of God true for those who believe.

If the mission of God in history is to announce, accomplish, and apply salvation to all of his people in all times and places, in that case the marks of the church are absolutely essential to the mission. Throughout the whole history of redemption, the divine mission was always executed through his covenant people beginning in the garden, after the fall, through Noah, Abraham, national Israel, and finally in the New Covenant church. In every epoch there was always a visible representation of the kingdom and covenant. Nothing has changed. Our Lord Jesus cut a covenant with his people in his blood and he administers his salvation, which is the essence of the mission, through that people. The marks of Christ’s church have always been evident: Gospel, sacraments, and discipline.

Therefore, so long as we continue to accept the Reformed reading of redemptive history, we cannot accept the EM/Missional movement’s definition of “missional.” By these lights, in order to be “missional” we have to reject what we understand to be the gospel and we should have to reject what we understand to be the mission and finally, to embrace the EM account of “mission,” we should have to adopt an Anabaptist doctrine of the church.

Fortunately, none of this is necessary. We should take the EM/Missional movement as a challenge to reinvigorate our vocation to take seriously our doctrine of the church as the covenant community, as the visible representation of the kingdom of God, and the external administration of the covenant of grace. Let us agree with the EM/Missional movement where they remind us that the mission of the church is grounded in the mission of God and the mission of God is expressed in the voluntary submission of God the Son to his Father, whose “food” was “to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). Our work is, first of all, to “believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29) and out of those missions, the institutional church must manifest the marks and so doing to go as we have been sent (John 20:21) by the him who was sent for us.

* This essay first appeared online in 2008.

1. Andy Crouch, “The Emergent Mystique,” Christianity Today, November 2004, 38.
2. Ibid.
3. From the cover of Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004). For a critique of McLaren’s attempted synthesis see R. Scott Clark, “Whosoever Will Be Saved: Emerging Church? Meet Christian Dogma,” in Reforming or Conforming, ed. Gary Johnson and Ronald Gleason (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008).
4. This is condensed from Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger, Emerging Churches: Creating a Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 43–44.
5. Scot McKnight, “Five Streams of the Emerging Church,” Christianity Today, February 2007, 36–39.
6. For a more extensive treatment of this phenomenon and a confessional invitation to the citizens of the “Emergent Village” to visit Geneva and Heidelberg see R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2007).
7. (accessed 5 October 4, 2007).
8. “adapting and reformulating absolutely everything it did in worship, discipleship, community,
and service—so as to be engaged with the non-Christian society around it” (accessed 5 October 4, 2007).
10. (accessed 10 October 10, 2007)
11. (accessed 10 October 2007).
12. (accessed 5 October 4, 2007).
13. (accessed 5 October 4, 2007).
14. Ibid.
15. (accessed 5 October 4, 2007).
16. Darrell L. Guder, ed., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).
17. Ibid., 4.
18. Ibid.
19. See e.g., ibid., 5–6.
20. The writers of Missional Church recognize that a missional church must be “historical” (p.11) but it is not entirely clear what this means.
21. Missional Church, 77. Remarkably, the chapter calls us to do exactly that which William Willimon has charged us not to do, i.e. to continue doing theology in “translation mode.” On this see William H.  Willimon, Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 9.
22. Missional Church, 79.
23. Ibid., 93–97.
24. Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2006).
25. Bearing in mind Richard Muller’s recent caveat about the difficulty of using this adjective. See Richard A. Muller, “A Note on ‘Christocentrism’ and the Imprudent Use of Such Terminology,” Westminster Theological Journal 68 (2006): 253–60.
26. See R. Scott Clark, “What is the Bible All About,” Modern Reformation 16 (March/April, 2007): 20–24.
27. See, e.g., 26, 30–32.
28. Ibid., 24–25.
29. Ibid
30. Ibid., 62–63.
31. (accessed 12 October, 2007).
32. Missional Church, 102–09.

Law, Gospel, And The Three Uses of the Law

By “law and gospel” I’m referring to the debate between those of us who hold to the historic and confessional distinction between those places in Scripture where God commands and promises blessing conditioned upon our obedience (law) and where he promises blessing freely on the basis of Christ’s obedience for us (gospel). Historically, Protestants have described these two ways of speaking in Scripture as “law” and “gospel” or the covenants of works and the covenants of grace.

There are some, perhaps many, in the Reformed community who, because they were raised in congregations where this way of speaking wasn’t used or because they associate this language with “Lutheranism,” or because they are moralists who think that making such a distinction will cause Christians not to obey God’s law, reject this distinction. By “third use” (tertius usus legis) I’m referring to the historic Protestant and confessional distinctions between the way the moral law is used.

The moral law is summarized for us in Scripture in Exodus 20 and in Deuteronomy 5 and in Matthew 22:37–40 but it is found throughout Scripture in the Old Testament and in the New.

…You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

The moral law never changes. It was given in creation, re-affirmed under Noah, expressed in typological and national terms under Moses, David, and the prophets, and re-affirmed in the NT by our Lord Jesus and the apostles.

The three uses of the law are:

  • pedagogical
  • civil
  • moral/normative

The uses of the law are numbered differently by different writers but here I’m following the order of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) which makes the pedagogical use the first use.

2. How many things are necessary for you to know, that in this comfort you may live and die happily?

Three things: the first, how great my sin and misery is; the second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery; the third, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption.

The first use is the “pedagogical” use whereby sinners are driven to Christ. The law in its first use applies only to unbelievers because believers, i.e., those who, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, have been given new life, have been given the grace of faith and who, through that faith are united to Christ, are credited by God with Christ’s whole (active and suffering) obedience and thus reckoned as righteous before God. A believer cannot be under the law in its first use. Paul says:

For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! (Rom 6:14–15; ESV)

and in Romans 11:6

But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.

In justification (acceptance with God) works is law keeping and grace is free. The gospel declares unconditional acceptance by God on the basis of Jesus’ law-keeping for all his people.

So, in this use, the law is taskmaster, a pedagogue (Gal 3:24), a harsh teacher with a ruler or a switch that beats us sinners when we transgress. This is the expression of God’s holy, relentless righteousness (justice), that must be satisfied either by ourselves or by another. God’s law threatens death for all those who transgress: “The day you eat thereof, you shall surely die.” (Gen 2:17)

The second use, the civil use, is the application of the moral law to public or civil life. Here we’re not talking about “theonomy,” which is the novel theory that God intends, in the new covenant, after the abrogation of the Mosaic/Old Covenant, that the civil magistrate institute and enforce the civil aspects and punishments of the 613 laws of Moses. Contrary to the repeated claims by theonomists, this has never been Reformed teaching.

Now, it is true that in the 16th and 17th centuries, in Christendom, under the influence of Constantinianism, the Reformed did expect the magistrate to enforce both tables (1-4; 5-10) of the moral law. In the 18th and 19th centuries, however, most Reformed folk came to see that Constantinianism was a mistake, that the magistrate is not called by the NT to enforce the first table (or at least the first three commandments–an argument can be made for civil recognition for a day of rest). Nevertheless, the Reformed all did affirm the doctrine of natural (creational) law. In recent years there has been an attempt to recover the older doctrine of natural law but to apply it without bringing back Constantinianism.

The Apostle Paul says that the moral law is known from creation:

For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse (Rom 1:20; ESV).

For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them (Rom 2:14–15; ESV)

It was this law that the Caesars knew. It was with this understanding that Paul called pagan Caesars “ministers of God” (Rom 13:6). After the Mosaic national, civil covenant had been fulfilled, God’s moral law, revealed in creation and known by our senses and in our consciences, is sufficient to guide civil society, even though we don’t use it correctly.

The third use is the normative or the moral use, whereby the moral life of the believer is normed and shaped by God’s moral law (the ten commandments). The denial of the third use of the law is called antinomianism, which is widespread in American (and perhaps other) evangelical circles. Few Christians will say outright that, under the New Testament, it is permissible to commit idolatry or adultery, but they will frequently assert that the moral law expressed under Moses is no longer binding. They say this chiefly because they’ve never been taught that the law that was given at Sinai was essentially the same law given to Adam in creation but this is basic Christian teaching. Our Lord himself appealed to creation against Moses when he said, “It was not so from the beginning” (Matt 19:18).

The one thing most American evangelicals know about the law is that it was fulfilled in Christ (which is true) and thus they assume that we are no longer bound by it. This is particularly true for the 2nd and 4th commandments (and the 5th). We all recognize that there were temporary, typological elements in the Mosaic expression of the moral law. We recognize that the land promise in the 5th commandment is no longer in force. The Apostle Paul explicitly recognizes the change in the law as a consequence of its fulfillment in Christ:

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” (Eph 6:1–3; ESV)

People often assume that the 2nd commandment no longer applies. Many evangelicals have decorated their homes and churches with patent violations of the 2nd commandment. The second commandment, however, is still in force. Yes, God the Son came in human flesh (in which he remains in glory!) but we don’t know what how he appeared. Therefore any alleged depiction of Christ’s humanity is nothing but a vain imagination. This is why the Reformed churches universally confess that it is sin to represent the 2nd person of the Holy Trinity.

Believers widely assume the 4th commandment (sabbath) no longer applies because they do not see that the sabbath is rooted not in Moses (the Old Testament) but in creation. Again, our Lord corrected Moses, as it were, by appealing to creation:

And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, anot man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)

Our Lord did not overturn the 1 in 7 rest and worship principle built into creation but he did free us from the typological (Saturday) observance and Jewish strictness. This was the teaching of the Synod of Dort.

There are some, however, who, as a matter of principle, deny that believers are under the law as a norm for Christian behavior. This is antinomianism. It is anti-Christian. The law is holy and good. In Christ, the terrors of the law having been satisfied for us by Christ’s righteousness and now that we live in union with Christ, by the Spirit, under grace, the law is a gift to us and the Spirit does use it to sanctify us. It is impossible for a Christian to deny the abiding validity of the moral law because it is by the law that sin is defined. God’s Word says:

sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4)

Sin is not what you or I think or say it is. It is not subjectively defined. It is defined objectively by the divinely given objective standard of Christian morality and ethics.

The third part of the Heidelberg Catechism (questions 86–129) is about the Christian life, lived in grace, in union with Christ, as adopted sons, out of gratitude to God. The major part of third section of the catechism is devoted to the Christian exposition and application of the moral law to the life of the believer. Each one of the ten commandments has a prohibition (what we must not do) and a positive injunction (what we must do).

Let’s address some other errors and misconceptions.

1. It is alleged by the Federal Visionists and other moralists that, unless one makes law-keeping a part of justification, unless one’s justification is somehow contingent upon sanctification, there’s no incentive to be obedient or to keep God’s law. This, of course, is foolishness. As we saw above, our salvation and our acceptance with God (justification) is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

2. It is also too often said in Reformed circles that the third use of the law is a Reformed distinctive. It is not. It is shared with the Lutheran confessions. The language “third use of the law” comes from Philip Melanchthon and was used widely by Reformed writers in the classical period.

It is said by some Reformed folk that Calvin thought of the third use as the first use. This is not only confusing but it is not true. In his 1559 Institutes he wrote:

The third and principal use, which pertains more closely to the proper purpose of the law, finds its place among believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already lives and reigns. For even though they have the law written and engraved upon their hearts by the finger of God [Jer 31:33; Heb 10:16], that is, have been so moved and quickened through the directing of the Spirit that they long to obey God, they still profit by the law in two ways. (2.7.12)

First of all, this section comes in the midst of a larger discussion of the three uses of the law beginning in 2.7.6. There he explicitly enumerates the three uses of the law in sections 6–9. The first use is the pedagogical use. The second use (2.7.10–11) is the civil use and the third use (2.7.12–14) is the normative use. So, let’s stop saying that, for Calvin the third use is the first use.

What he wrote in 2.7.12 was: “Tertius uses, qui est praecipuus est…” “The third use, which is the chief use…” and by that phrase he was echoing what the whole Reformed world was saying before and after him, that we are justified that we might be sanctified. We’re justified in order that we might be “so influenced and actuated by the Spirit” that we desire to obey God from the heart, out of gratitude, according to his law. That’s all he means. This was not revolutionary.

3. The third use is not a backdoor to legalism. We’re not bringing back justification by law under this heading. We discuss this use of the law under the covenant of grace, not the covenant of works.

4. Further, because the law is God’s objective standard for morality it is actually a liberating gift, because it frees me from the tyranny of fads and opinions. The law is the law. The definition of sin does not shift with the tides of human whim. No one may require of me what God has not. In that way God’s law is a bulwark against legalism. It protects me from your opinion and you from mine. Further, our churches confess an understanding of what the law entails. That confession isn’t legalism, even if it may seem unfamiliar to those outside the Reformed theology, piety, and practice.

This essay first appeared as a two-part series on the Heidelblog in 2007.

SAET Interviews In Politics And Theology #10: R. Scott Clark

With regard to political action:  American Christians (particularly evangelicals) must get over the microwave mentality. We need to think more in terms of camp fires and cook outs. It takes a long time to make a decent meal outdoors and it might all go wrong . . . . If we substituted the camp fire for the microwave we might also be useful by becoming more critical of reigning cultural paradigms. For example, many American Christians are suburbanites. They make take the existence of suburbs for granted but should we? . . . . Christianity is not middle-class American suburbia nor is it neo-Romanticism about “the city.”  Where is the evangelical, missional passion for rural America?


1. For those who are not familiar with your work, can you describe your contribution to the question of how the individual Christian and the Church relates to the State?

RSC: I doubt that I’ve made any contribution to this question. My interest is partly historical, partly biblical-exegetical, theological, and pastoral. I have an academic interest in the history of Reformed theology and ethics and particularly in the way the classical Reformed theologians (and confessional churches) understood creation, natural law, and the intersection between those categories and Reformed soteriology and understanding of redemptive history. As a pastor I have seen the damage done to the visible church by confusing the kingdom of God with the kingdoms of this world.

2.  Richard Mouw and Carl F. H. Henry have suggested that the Church’s role is not coterminous with the responsibility possessed by individual believers.  Do you agree or disagree?

RSC: If I understand the question correctly, yes, I agree. What Christ has commissioned the visible church, as an institution, to do is one thing; and what he has commissioned the Christian to do is rather broader. This distinction goes back at least to the early Reformation’s doctrines of vocation and its distinction between the two kingdoms. It also has roots in St Augustine’s distinction between the two cities. Christians have a dual citizenship. St Paul says that we have a heavenly citizenship (Phil 3:20) but we also have an earthly citizenship (Rom 13:1-7). If we understand that the Israelite theocracy was fulfilled by Christ then we also understand that God has made no special covenant with any nation. The visible church is the Israel of God (Gal 6:16). The responsibility of the visible church is to be the principle representative of the kingdom of God (the heavenly kingdom) on the earth (Matt 16; Matt 18). Historically considered, the church as an institution has had very difficult time fulfilling the responsibilities given to her by our Lord: administration of Word, sacraments, and ecclesiastical discipline (Belgic Confession article 29).

Christians, however, as members of the common kingdom, under God’s sovereign rule, have civil responsibilities. They may form private associations (outside the visible church) to address social issues which are common to believers and non-believers. They may and should speak, as Christians, to social questions. Because we confess that, as Creator and Redeemer, Christ is Lord of all and because we seek to live out our faith daily in God’s good creation and active providence in the world, we cannot withdraw from it. The great error of “world flight” is that it denies the essential goodness of creation. The essential error of the theology of glory is that confuses heaven with earth. Confessional Protestants have a doctrine of vocation that calls the Christian to engage the God’s world to the benefit of his neighbor and the glory of God while always distinguishing this world from the world to come.

3.  Please identify for our readers two influential thinkers or political concepts to which you often respond (perhaps one positive, one negative)?

RSC: My politics have evolved considerably during my lifetime. I was raised a liberal (Humphrey) Democrat. I was catechized on the Sunday paper and local politics. When other children we in Sunday School I was putting up yard signs. In university I read political philosophy and the combination of Plato, Augustine, Calvin, and Hobbes led me to a sort of democratic socialism.  Herbert Schlossberg’s Idols for Destruction was helpful in alerting me to the theological errors (and cardinal sins) inherent in socialism. Plato (or neo-Platonism) is wrong. The Spirit-matter dualism is an error. It is not Paul’s (Holy) Spirit-flesh (sin) dualism. Jesus is true God and true man. It was Calvin’s doctrine of creation and natural law and the epistemological (common sense) realism of the Reformed orthodox that began to push me and my Augustinian view of sin in a more libertarian direction. Along the way I have been influenced, in different ways, by the early fathers (e.g., Ad Diognetum), Augustine,  Eric Voeglin, Hannah Arrendt, C. S. Lewis, W. F. Buckley, and Dorothy Sayers among others. From Reformed orthodoxy I learned the distinction between the covenants of works and grace. In theological terms, civil life, whether in local communities or in international relations,  is a covenant of works (“do this and live”) and not a covenant of grace. The administration of the covenant of grace (“for God so loved the world”) belongs to the visible church not to the magistrate.

4. How would you summarize the political responsibilities of the average American in the pew—that is, someone with voting rights, but little political capital, and little or no economic capital for political action?

RSC: In this world one either spends time or money (and sometimes both). Even when the latter is lacking there is a great deal that might be done on the local level and Christians are willing to get involved and spend the time. Political capital, like economic capital is accumulated over time. Local politics is about involvement and taking risks. American Christians (particularly evangelicals) must get over the microwave mentality. We need to think more in terms of camp fires and cook outs. It takes a long time to make a decent meal outdoors and it might all go wrong. It might not taste good but it’s necessary. If Christians involve themselves in the local school board or local council races or even on advisory committees these are inexpensive ways to become involved in local civil life.

If we substituted the camp fire for the microwave we might also be useful by becoming more critical of reigning cultural paradigms. For example, many American Christians are suburbanites. They make take the existence of suburbs for granted but should we? We are all creatures of a given time and place but being Christians gives us the opportunity to step outside our own time and place a bit and to see it more objectively, more critically. Christianity is not middle-class American suburbia nor is it neo-Romanticism about “the city.” God may be glorified in both places but he may also be glorified in rural settings. Where is the evangelical, missional passion for rural America? Re-engaging rural America will not happen quickly. It might take decades but there are opportunities all through the American Heartland for those who want to engage civil life on a micro-level with limited resources.

5.  How does Romans 13 help us understand the limits placed on the church and/or the individual believer in our engagement with political matters?

RSC: When I was in seminary I recall a fellow-student with theonomic inclinations dismissing Romans 13 as if it were insignificant. It seems to me that if one finds Romans 13 insufficient or insignificant for ones understanding of the Christian’s role in civil life then one is likely asking the wrong questions or beginning with the wrong assumptions. One should ask, “why do I find Romans 13 unsatisfactory?” Could it be that one is seeking outcomes or working with expectations that St Paul did not? Americans have invoked and abused Jesus’ teaching about   a “city shining on a hill” (Matt 5:14). The American colonies were not that city. Jesus is the light of the world and his Christians are the “light of the world” (Matt 5:14) by virtue of their union with him. It’s important to note, however, how Paul called us to be light in the world principally by living a “peaceful and quiet life” (1 Tim 2:2). That American Christians bristle at God’s calling Romans 13,  for submission to established authorities, says a great deal about the continuing influence of the revolutionary spirit. Paul clearly teaches at all authorities, even Nero, are instituted by God. This is why Calvin was so careful to stipulate that popular revolution is immoral, that it is the vocation of the “lesser magistrates” to hold civil rulers in check. Paul understood what he was saying. Christians suffered under Nero and they would suffer more grievously in centuries to come. I think the treatise Ad Diognetum (c. 155 AD possibly by Polycarp) is most a instructive application of Romans 13. His argument was that the Christians were false accused of being seditious. He responded (5:.1-11):

For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric way of life…For while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. The live in their own countries but only as nonresidents, they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are in the flesh, but they do not live according to the flesh. They live on earth but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws. They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted.

Would that the same could be said of us today.

6.  How do biblical books such as Deuteronomy and Proverbs help us to understand God’s perspective on politics?  Does the fact that they share political and ethical insights with other Ancient Near Eastern cultures (or that they offer critiques of those cultures and their political systems) influence your view of their relevance?

RSC: I think these are two distinct, if related, questions. The Westminster Divines (chapter 19) answered the first (regarding the contemporary application of Deuteronomy) by reminding us that there are three aspects to the Mosaic law: civil, ceremonial, and moral. The Decalogue (Deut 5) is a typological, Israelite, summary of the moral, creational law. It is permanent and it like the other two aspects of the Mosaic law (613 Mitzvoth) have been fulfilled by Christ. The divines, however, were at pains to point out that the civil and ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic law have been fulfilled. What remains is the moral law, given in creation, that binds all people in all times. The “general equity” of the Mosaic civil law continues to be of use to us but we should understand, as your question suggests, that the Israelite civil law was not absolutely unique and thus though there are general principles to be discerned it is because those principles are grounded in creational (natural) justice which existed prior to Israel and which continue to bind civil magistrates two millennia after Christ fulfilled them. The principal function of the Pentateuch (Torah) generally is to point us to Christ. Only secondarily and indirectly does it provide guidance to contemporary civil life and even then only in general terms.

Proverbs is important for the civil life of the Christian because it was intended to serve as an introduction to wisdom, as a collection of maxims that, properly understood and skillfully applied, will result in benefit to the one who obeys them. Ultimately, of course, wisdom points to Christ, the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:18). Proximately, however, Christians as much as anyone need practical wisdom to live life “under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:3). Inasmuch as evangelical political engagement has lacked a lot of wisdom for the last several decades one might say that we are much more in need of Proverbs (and perhaps Ecclesiastes and Job!) than we are Deuteronomy.

7.  Some political theologians note that Daniel simultaneously models service, critique, and a message of divine judgment.  Are all three of these to be implemented by believers?  Are they postures we should always exhibit, or are they more appropriate at some times than others?

RSC: Darryl Hart and David VanDrunen have both properly pointed us to Daniel as a good model for Christian social and political engagement. We are not in Canaan. We are in exile. Daniel did not seek to overturn the established social or civil order. He served God faithfully within it, within the limits established by God’s Word. This is how it has always been. When the magistrate called Daniel to transgress God’s law, Daniel refused and accepted the consequences. The paradox of Christian political influence is that it will most likely come not through the acquisition of power but by the quiet (and perhaps therefore conspicuous) adherence to God’s Word that transcends all political and civil authority.

8.  If a young church planter says to you, “In my social and cultural context, I need to avoid political topics.  This enables me to address the gospel without any baggage and has helped our church create a community of diverse perspectives centered on Christ and his work.  But am I doing the right thing?  Should I be bolder?”  How would you respond?  Which passages would you use as a resource for guiding his or her thinking?

RSC: Of course a church planter must be wise. He must know his setting, his limitations, but he  must also know and be faithful to the whole counsel of God. I doubt that any pastor is called to preach on “political” topics, depending upon how one defines political. Preaching Romans 13 or 1 Timothy 2 or 1 Peter 2:13-17 is not “political.” If it is true, as the Reformed have thought, that we live in two kingdoms simultaneously, then the preacher is called to proclaim the advent of God’s Kingdom in Christ (Mark 1:15), to call everyone everywhere to repentance and faith but he is also called to preach and teach God’s Word as it applies to our life as citizens of the creational kingdom, which we share with those who do not confess Christ. Christians want to know how they should conduct themselves at work, with the non-Christian co-workers, neighbors, and family and God’s Word speaks to those things. If the word “politics” refers to partisan politics, to calls to elect this candidate or to vote this way or that, then no preacher, let alone a church planter, should be speaking to those things that way from the pulpit. A minister is not called to be an emissary from the civil kingdom. There are plenty of those. He is called to serve as an ambassador from the Kingdom of God to this world and he is to announce the in-breaking of that kingdom, in Christ, in Word and sacrament, into this world.

9.  What is the best article or essay a young pastor could read on politics, political interpretation of Scripture, or political theology?  The best book?

RSC: Darryl Hart’s A Secular Faith and David VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms are two excellent places to begin to think through these issues. Ken Myers’ Mars Hill Audio is indispensable for continuing to grow in this area.

– See more at:

The Logic Of Fruit As Evidence

The Patristic Period
One of the earliest concerns of the Christian church, beginning with the apostles and intensifying through the patristic and medieval periods, was that those who profess the Christian faith should live in a way befitting their profession of faith. In the apostolic and patristic periods our theologians were often writing within a hostile culture to converts from paganism. There was much that Christians could not control: what the pagans thought of them (e.g., they drown babies, they were cannibals, they were a burial cult etc). The Greco-Roman pagans seemed determined to try to force the Christians to conform outwardly to Greco-Roman piety. They were happy to add Jesus to the pantheon but they (and the non-Christian Jews) were greatly troubled by his crucifixion and they could not tolerate the notion that he had claimed (and the Christians confessed) that he is the only way to God. There offended too by the Christian doctrine of the Trinity as unreasonable and others were critical of the claim that Jesus was born of a Virgin. Occasionally, in the patristic periods, there were even sporadic outbreaks of government-sponsored persecution intended either deal with the problem of the Christians. Those pogroms failed and the Christians persisted. One thing the Christians could control, one claim the Christians could make was that their behavior was exemplary. Those who investigated the Christians from the outside reported (e.g., Pliny the Younger c. 112 AD) that the Christians covenanted among themselves not make false oaths, not to steal, not to desire the belongings of others etc. They recited the Ten Commandments in their services. As part of their apologetic (i.e., defense of the faith) Justin Martyr and Tertullian repeatedly challenged the pagans to find anything wrong with the way Christians behaved. Christians, they argued, were good citizens and could sustain any trial to which the pagans might put them. They repeatedly begged the authorities to leave the Christians alone so they could pursue their lives peacefully.

The Medieval Period
Beginning in the late Patristic period and continuing through the medieval period, however, the high Christian doctrine of the moral and apologetic necessity of good behavior morphed into something else: part of the ground and instrument of the Christian’s standing before God, part of the ground and reason of their final salvation from the wrath to come. By the high middle ages (e.g., as reflected the teaching of Anselm. Bernard of Clairvaux. and Thomas Aquinas) it was widely held, though never formally confessed by the church, that salvation is by sanctification and that sanctification is by grace and free cooperation with grace. The mainstream doctrine became that Christians needed to accumulate merit and that was that free will, i.e., the un-coerced act of the will was essential merit. Behind this lay a set of philosophical assumptions that were received more or less uncritically, chief among which was the notion that God can only say “righteous” or “sanctified” if the Christians is actually, inherently, intrinsically righteous and sanctified. Particularly in the West and entire doctrine of salvation (soteriology) was established to explain how that was and what one must do to be saved (sanctified and therefore justified and finally delivered from the wrath to come).

The became that Christians are infused with a sort of medicine (a metaphor frequently used for grace) which produces new life (there is nothing new about sovereign, prevenient grace) with which the Christian must cooperate toward the formation of a kind of merit that has intrinsic worth. The medieval theologians called this “condign merit.” They recognized, however, in different ways that our cooperation with grace is imperfect or that our good works are still imperfect (different writers put it differently) and therefore God must impute perfection to our best efforts. They called this congruent merit. There was a widespread conviction that the only way to promote sanctity (holiness) and obedience among Christians is to suspend their final standing before God (salvation) upon their cooperation with grace. Good works were not evidence of a right standing with God and salvation but essential to the ground and instrument of our justification and salvation. Where at least some of the Fathers had spoken of justification and salvation by grace through faith in something like the way the Protestants would later do, the medievals defined faith rather differently. They defined faith as sanctification. They taught that faith is a virtue, that it has intrinsic power, and that it is “formed” in us through sanctification, i.e., by grace and cooperation with grace. Where Paul had written, “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6) the medievals (e.g., Thomas) taught “faith formed by love.” They spoke of the “theological virtues” of 1 Corinthians 13: faith, hope, and love. Faith was thought to be the gift of God but it does not given to us fully developed. We must nurture it and since love (caritas from which we get charity) is the greatest virtue, we must develop it by our free cooperation with grace toward the formation of faith. Thus, for the medieval theologians, faith is not so much trusting in Christ and looking to Christ but rather a measurement of the degree of love formed within us, a measurement of our actual sanctity and inherent righteousness.

This prevailing medieval doctrine of salvation by grace and cooperation with grace, however, left the Christian in a state of suspension. Assurance was regarded as ordinarily impossible for the ordinary Christian and undesirable. Indeed, the notion of that one might have certainty that one was saved and would be saved from the wrath to come was regarded as presumption, as arrogance and that was an indication that one was not sufficiently sanctified. Christians were intended in a state of uncertainty. In at least one Saxon Augustinian monk that crisis created by the medieval system would produce a revolution in Western theology, piety, and practice.

The Reformation
When Luther rebelled against the medieval doctrine of justification and salvation by sanctification he re-defined justification as God’s unconditional declaration of justification (righteousness) on the ground of Christ’s condign merit imputed to believers and that received through faith alone (sola fide). Faith in justification and salvation was redefined as the sole instrument through which Christians receive God’s grace and Christ’s righteousness. This is why the sola of sola fide was so important. Love was said to be the fruit and evidence of justification and salvation. Grace was also redefined. Luther and the Protestants found that the medievals had departed from the biblical definition of grace as God’s free favor toward sinners and had turned it into a medicine. They found that some of the Fathers and many of the medievals had downplayed the effects of sin so as to be able to teach our ability to cooperate freely with grace. They recaptured St Paul’s and St Augustine’s doctrine of sin and its deadly consequences.

Where the medievals had come to teach that Christ’s life, death, and resurrection made it possible for Christian to do his part, if he would, Luther and the Protestants declared that the gospel is that Christ had accomplished salvation once-for-all and that he freely distributes it to all who believe, that faith is a free gift of grace, and that even though we are never fully, inherently sanctified or righteous in this life nevertheless we are already fully justified before God and saved from the wrath to come. We are simultaneously righteous even though we remain actually sinners (simul iustus et peccator). That was something that virtually no medieval theologian could say and it was flatly contrary to what became formal Romanist dogma in the mid-16th century.

What of sanctification? Whereas the medievals made sanctification the instrument of our justification and salvation Luther and the Protestants taught that our actual, progressive sanctification is the necessary consequence of our justification and our salvation from the wrath to come. Like the Fathers and the medievals they believed and taught the moral necessity of holiness and obedience to God’s moral law (the ten commandments) but unlike the medievals they taught Christian obedience to the law is the fruit of our justification and evidence of our salvation. There were those, particularly in the 1550s, who dissented from the Protestant consensus. One theologian (Osiander) taught that God accepts us on the basis of our union with the indwelling Christ. Another tried to wedge in the medieval doctrine, by teaching that good works were more than evidence but this revision was universally rejected. The overwhelming consensus among Reformed theologians by the mid-16th century was that sanctification is the necessary consequence of our justification and the evidence of our salvation.

Protestants On Obedience As Fruit And Evidence
Where Rome (e.g., Trent), the Socinians, and Richard Baxter made good works the antecedent condition of our salvation (the law of works), i.e., they played the same role as faith, the Protestants made good works the necessary consequence of our salvation. According to the moralists, we do good works in order to be saved. According to the Protestants, we do good works because we have been saved. One says, in effect, that we are saved from the flood (judgment) partly through faith and partly through our good works. The other says we obey out of gratitude, in union and communion with the risen Christ, because we have been saved, as it were, from the flood. This is the best understanding of Ephesians 2:8–10. Our salvation and the faith by which we receive it, it’s all God’s gift.

Martin Luther
It was Luther who gave us the adjective antinomian, those who reject the abiding validity of God’s holy moral law as the norm for the Christian. Almost as soon as Luther and the Protestants had recovered the gospel of free salvation by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), resting in and receiving Christ and all his benefits, a movement arose that rejected the abiding validity of the moral law. Luther defended not only the first use of the moral law (whereby we learn the greatness of our sin and misery) but also the third use whereby the moral law norms the Christian life. We keep the law not in order to be saved but because we have been saved.

Good works, he taught, are the a necessary consequence of our justification and salvation:

We conclude with Paul that we are justified solely by faith in Christ, without the Law and works. But after a man is justified by faith, now possesses Christ by faith, and knows that He is his righteousness and life, he will certainly not be idle but, like a sound tree, will bear good fruit (Matt. 7:17). For the believer has the Holy Spirit; and where He is, He does not permit a man to be idle but drives him to all the exercises of devotion, to the love of God, to patience in affliction, to prayer, to thanksgiving, and to the practice of love toward all men.1

He was not finished. In the very next paragraph Luther wrote

Therefore we, too, say that faith without works is worthless and useless. The papists and the fanatics take this to mean that faith without works does not justify, or that if faith does not have works, it is of no avail, no matter how true it is. That is false. But faith without works—that is, a fantastic idea and mere vanity and a dream of the heart—is a false faith and does not justify.2

For Luther, as for all the confessional Protestants following him, good works do not make faith what it is but neither can one claim to have true faith without them any more than a tree can be said to be good without fruit. The fruit demonstrates what the tree is. The fruit is evidence that the tree is alive.

This, of course, never satisfies the moralist. He will have good works as part of faith both in justification and for our final entrance into glory:

On the other hand, the weak, who are not malicious or slanderous but good, are offended when they hear that the Law and good works do not have to be done for justification. One must go to their aid and explain to them how it is that works do not justify, how works should be done, and how they should not be done. They should be done as fruits of righteousness, not in order to bring righteousness into being. Having been made righteous, we must do them; but it is not the other way around: that when we are unrighteous, we become righteous by doing them. The tree produces fruit; the fruit does not produce the tree.3

This metaphor of good works as fruit was widely adopted by Protestant writers. It became a standard feature of Reformed theologians in the British Isles and across Europe. It was so widely accepted that it became a the way that the Reformed churches spoke about good works in their confessions.

The Reformed Confessions And Theologians
Perhaps the locus classicus (the most typical place) is Belgic Confession article 24:

These works, proceeding from the good root of faith, are good and acceptable to God, since they are all sanctified by his grace. Yet they do not count toward our justification— for by faith in Christ we are justified, even before we do good works. Otherwise they could not be good, any more than the fruit of a tree could be good if the tree is not good in the first place.

The charge made by Rome and the Anabaptists, among others, was that the evangelical doctrine of salvation sola gratia, sola fide would make Christians cold and careless about their sanctification. The Reformed churches refuted that charge by arguing that the same grace by which we have been given new life also produces faith and it is “impossible for this holy faith to be unfruitful.” True faith is God’s gift. It unites us to the risen and ascended Christ who, by his Spirit, works in us conformity to himself and to his moral will. This is how we understand “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). Rome, remember, turned “faith working through love” into “faith formed by love” (on this see part 1). In response, Calvin wrote on Galatians 5:6, “When you are engaged in discussing the question of justification, beware of allowing any mention to be made of love or of works, but resolutely adhere to the exclusive particle.”

In the 1559 edition of the Institutes Calvin wrote at length on the relationship between the grace of justification and the grace of sanctification.

But, since the question concerns only righteousness and sanctification, let us dwell upon these. Although we may distinguish them, Christ contains both of them inseparably in himself. Do you wish, then, to attain righteousness in Christ? You must first possess Christ; but you cannot possess him without being made partaker in his sanctification, because he cannot be divided into pieces [1 Cor. 1:13]. Since, therefore, it is solely by expending himself that the Lord gives us these benefits to enjoy, he bestows both of them at the same time, the one never without the other. Thus it is clear how true it is that we are justified not without works yet not through works, since in our sharing in Christ, which justifies us, sanctification is just as much included as righteousness.4

Notice that, for Calvin, we are not justified “without” works but we are not justified “through” them. They are concomitant to our justification and our salvation but they are not the instrument (“through”) of our salvation. This is the difference between through and is. He continued in the next section to give a series of biblical quotations and allusions proving that “no one can put sharper spurs to them than those derived from the end of our redemption and calling” (3.16.2). In other words, contra the moralists, guilt, grace, and gratitude (lived in union and communion with Christ) is enough to empower and enable the Christian life of sanctification and the fruit of good works. He asked rhetorically, “Could we be aroused to love by any livelier argument than that of John’s: that “we love one another as God has loved us”? (ibid). God’s gracious for our present tribulation produces fruit: “Let us always remember that this promise, like all others, would not bear fruit for us if the free covenant of his mercy had not gone before, upon which the whole assurance of our salvation depended” (3.18.7).

In the Second Helvetic Confession (published 1566) the Swiss Reformed confessed:

The same apostle calls faith efficacious and active through love (Gal. 5:6). It also quiets the conscience and opens a free access to God, so that we may draw near to him with confidence and may obtain from him what is useful and necessary. The same faith keeps us in the service we owe to God and our neighbor, strengthens our patience in adversity, fashions and makes a true confession, and in a word brings forth good fruit of all kinds, and good works (ch. 16).

We obey because God has graciously redeemed us. The very same grace and faith that saves also produces the fruit of good works, the evidence of our salvation.

For we teach that truly good works grow out of a living faith by the Holy Spirit and are done by the faithful according to the will or rule of God’s Word. Now the apostle Peter says: “Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control,” etc.(II Peter 1:5 ff.). But we have said above that the law of God, which is his will, prescribes for us the pattern of good works. And the apostle says: “This is the will of God, your sanctification, that you abstain from immorality…that no man transgress, and wrong his brother in business” (I Thess. 4:3 ff.).

We are not antinomian but we use the law the way it was intended to be used: as the norm of our new life, not the instrument or ground of our salvation.

The Westminster Confession could not have been clearer about the relationship between faith and fruits:

2. These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life (chapter 16).

Our good works do not justify us. They do not sanctify us. They do not save us but they are the “fruit and evidences” of a true and lively faith. Christ saved us by his obedience, death, and resurrection. The Spirit sanctifies by his grace. Our good works are the fruit of God’s gracious for us and in us.

The logic is this: God graciously works in us new life and faith. Through that faith we apprehend Christ and all his benefits for our salvation. Through that faith the Spirit works union and communion with Christ in which we are sanctified and out of that faith, union, and communion are produced the fruit of our new life and sanctification in Christ. Fruit is a metaphor. As the Belgic Confession has it, good trees produce good fruit. The fruit is evidence of the life in the tree. So, the Spirit produces new life, faith, union with Christ, justification and sanctification in the sinner. Our good works are the fruit of the Spirit’s work in us and evidence of the salvation that we have by grace alone, through faith alone.


1. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 26: Lectures on Galatians, 1535, Chapters 1-4, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 26 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 154–155. I am indebted to John Fonville for his help with this post.

2. Luther’s Works, 26.155.

3. Luther’s Works, 26.169.

4. Calvin, Institutes (Battles edition), 3.16.1.


The Necessity And Limits Of The Imitation Of Christ

There is no question among orthodox Christians, i.e., those who believe and obey God’s Word, who believe the catholic creeds, who have a substantial connection to the ancient church, whether Christians ought to seek to imitate Christ. The questions are how do we imitate him and to what end? This has been a topic of some discussion on the HB. I wrote an 8-part series distinguishing between Jesus the Savior and Christians as his saved. Yesterday I tweeted (yes, I know, it’s a funny verb) some comments about the difference between Jesus’ “faith” and ours, that Jesus’ faith is “not the pattern” for ours. That comment received some pushback, as they say. Some of the respondents made a fair point. “Pattern” was too ambiguous. The truth is that there are continuities and discontinuities between Jesus’ “faith” and ours. Thus, as you might have noticed, I put the word faith in quotation marks to signal some discontinuity between Jesus’ “faith” and ours, not to suggest that Jesus did not have faith but to signal that his faith was qualitatively different from ours because he is qualitatively different from us.

There are analogies between our faith and Christ’s but I stand by my original point that we should be very cautious about talking about Jesus’ faith and ours as if they are the same thing. They are not the same thing because Jesus was not a sinner who needed to be saved from the wrath of God and we are not the Savior. Yes, Jesus may be said to have exercised faith. He trusted his heavenly Father but the trust he exercised was not that trust that we, by grace alone (salvation and faith are a gift) exercise. Jesus’ trust in his heavenly Father cannot be said to have been a gift. He was not born in need of regeneration, i.e., he was not born dead in sins and trespasses. He was not in need of being raised spiritually from death to life. As we’ve seen in the recent posts (and here) on the Heidelberg Catechism, God the Son was born innocent, righteous, and holy not for himself but for us (pro nobis). All his righteousness (HC 60) is credited to believers so that it is as if they themselves had done all that he did. In Christ, sola gratiasola fide, it is as we had never sinned or had any sin. Jesus trusted that his Father would keep the covenant (pactum salutis) they made before all worlds (John 17), that his Father would vindicate him, i.e., that he would recognize his Son’s inherent and perfect righteousness.

When we talk about our faith, we’re talking about the faith of fallen, sinful, mere humans. We are not inherently, intrinsically righteous before God. We are righteous only on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed. That is why Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him for righteousness” is applied repeatedly in the NT to believers, to Christians, and not to the Christ. Yes, when we believe, we are certainly trusting that our Father will keep his promises to us but those promises are made to us in Christ and we are praying in Jesus’ name. When Jesus prayed, he didn’t need a Mediator. Jesus is the Christ and we are his Christians. These are two distinct classes.

There are two dangers in talking about the imitation of Christ: 1) moralism; 2) moralism. Let me explain. In the exchange  it was claimed that “Christian” (Χριστιανός) means “little Christ.” That’s not not quite correct. It means “a follower of Christ.” The word occurs only 3 times in the New Testament (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16) and it never means “little Christ.” That some think this way, however, illustrates the first danger, that of confusing the Christ and the Christian. That tends toward self-salvation, which is an impossibility. It is either born of a denial of the fall and its consequences (Pelagianism) or from downplaying the effects of the fall (semi-Pelagianism, Romanism, Arminianism). In the case of Pelagius, he set up two great examples for all humans to follow: Adam and Christ. He denied that “in Adam’s fall sinned we all.” He said that we’re all born Adam and that we may, if we will, do what Adam failed to do: obey God of our own will unto glory. The Apostle Paul, however, took a very different view (see Romans chapters 1–5; Eph 2:1–4). According to Paul, when Adam sinned, we all sinned in him and when he died spiritually, so did we. By nature, after the fall, we are incapable of doing anything toward salvation. We are utterly helpless. To blur the line between Jesus and his people, then creates the impression that if we only pulled a little harder on our bootstraps, we can imitate Jesus unto acceptance with God and glory. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

The second danger is closely related to the first, that of turning Jesus into the first Christian. Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) did this by attempting to redefine Christianity as the recovery of Jesus’ religious experience. Some of liberals who followed him, as Machen noted, blurred the line between Christ and the Christian by making Jesus into the first Christian do-gooder. That he was not. He did good but not toward an earthly utopia, not merely as a prophet, but as the Savior of sinners and by way of inaugurating the kingdom of God. The kingdom, however, in the interregnum, is largely invisible and especially to those who seek a kingdom of power and glory before the consummation. Jesus disappointed Judas and he continues to disappoint those who continue to cry for Bar-Abbas.

Both of these dangers are quite present today. On the one hand, there is a reaction to antinomianism both real and perceived that tends to blur the line between Christ and Christian by talking incautiously about Jesus’ faith and ours, without explaining clearly the qualitative difference, as if Jesus had faith in just the same sense as we. That is a great mistake. We also face pressure to blur the line from those who, in various ways, want to see Christianity expressed more visibly in the world in concrete ways. A century later, we’re having the same discussions about the Social Gospel that we had in the early 20th century. It’s frequently said now that our Christianity may just as well be seen as heard. In two words: uh, no.

We need to make some distinctions:

There is Imitation of Christ: Faith hath two eyes; one lookes to Christs merits that we may be saved; the other to his righteousness that we may be sanctified. In Imitation there be two things, Action and Affection. Action, for it is not enough to commend and admire the patterne, but we must follow it. Affection, for it is not enough to forgive because we cannot revenge. This is no sufficient imitation of Christs love; for he can, if he please, bruise sinners to pieces, and q break them.1

Thomas Adams made a great point. We look first to Christ’s merits for us and then only should we talk about imitation but talk about it we must.

Above we began to look at a very necessary distinction in the way we talk about the imitation of Christ. It is undeniably true that Christians seek to imitate Christ but, as Adams wrote, we look to Christ with two eyes, as it were. First we look to him as Savior. If we fail to do this, we run the risk of falling into the Socinian error, as Samuel Rutherford noted in 1655.

The Socinian faith which looks to an exemplary Martyr whom God of no justice, but in vain, and for no cause delivered to death but of mere free pleasure whereas there might be, and is forgiveness without shedding of blood: contrair to Heb. 9. 22. Rom. 3. 24, 25 &c. even good works done in imitation of Christ.2

There are other ways to abuse the truth that Christians imitate Christ. The early English Presbyterian Thomas Cartwright warned about one of them:

RHEM. 7. [17. Tha character or the name.] As belike for the perverse imitation of Christ, whose image (specially as on the Rhood or crucifixe) he seeth honored and exalted in every Church, he will have his image adored (for that is Antichrist, in emulation of like honour, adversary to Christ) so for that he seeth all true Christian men to beare the badge of his Cross in their forehead, he likewise will force all his to have an other marke, to abolish the signe of Christ. 3

The abuse here is to violate God’s law and justify by calling it “imitation.” These “imitations” are, of course, improper. We may not do as we will and call it the “imitation of Christ.” He alone determines how he is to worshipped and adored. The sorts of things of which Cartwright complained grew out of the medieval attempt to replicate the life of Christ, which quest failed to honor the distinction between the Savior and the saved, between the Christ and his Christians.

Jesus is more than an example but he is, in certain, important ways, an example to us to imitate. Here we come to the other eye, of which Adams wrote. William Perkins points us in the right direction as we seek to understand how it is that we imitate Christ. We do so not as “little christs”, not in order to be accepted by God, but because he is the Christ and because we have been accepted. As such, by his free favor alone, through faith alone, by the Spirit we are united to him. We imitate him thus:

First, as Christ Jesus when he was dead rose againe from death to life by his own power, so we by his grace, in imitation of Christ, must endeavour our selves to rise up from all our sins both originall and actual unto newnes of life. This is worthily set downe by the Apostle, saying, We are buried by baptisme into his death, that as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glorie of the Father, so we also should walke in new nesse of life: and therefore we must endeavour our selves to show the same power to be in us every day, by rising up from our owne personall sins to a reformed life. This ought to be remembred of us, because howsoever many heare and know this point, yet very few do practise the same.4

We seek to die to sin and live to Christ. This is the basic structure of the Christian life. Perkins made clear the distinction between Christ and the Christian. He rose again “by his own power.” We endeavor to “rise up” metaphorically from our sins. We are identified with Christ in baptism, to the end that we might walk in the new life, in Christ. We imitate the Savior by seeking to live as saved people.

Herman Witsius is also helpful here.

LXXXIX. But yet, as it is very desirable to have likewise an example of perfect holiness upon earth; so God has not suffered us to be without one; for he sent his own Son from heaven, who hath left us the brightest pattern of every virtue, without exception, “that we should follow his steps,” 1 Pet. 2:21. It was a part of Christ’s prophetical office, to teach not only by words, but by the example of his life, that both in his words and actions, he might say, “learn of me,” Matt. 11:29. The imitation of him is often recommended by the apostles, 1 Cor. 11:1. 1 Thess. 1:6. 1 John 2:6.

We are not accepted by God because of virtues formed in us by grace and cooperation with grace. That was the medieval theology and piety that the Reformers and Reformed Churches rightly rejected but we did not reject the notion that God does form virtues in us. Christ did set an example for us. As Witsius noted, that’s the clear teaching of Scripture.

Still there are distinctions to be made in the way that talk about imitating Christ.

XC. It has been very well observed by a learned person, that we are to distinguish between imitation, whereby we are said to be μιμηται, imitators of Christ, 1 Cor. 11:1; and between following, by which we are commanded to follow Christ; between “follow me,” Matt. 16:24, and “follow after me,” Matt. 10:38. For the former denotes a conformity to an example: the latter, the attendance of servants going after their masters; which words are generally confounded by writers in their own language, though they ought by no means to be so.5

The death we are die is real but figurative. When Christ called us to take up his cross, he was not calling us (as they do in the Philippines each Spring) literally to be nailed to a cross. That’s why we don’t take pilgrimages to Jerusalem to re-trace the steps of Christ. That borders on superstition. We are to walk in his footsteps as he obeyed his Father and as he loved his neighbor. The death we are to die daily is to sin.

The norm for our Christian life is not, as noted above, what we imagine we should do in order to imitate Christ. Rather, we are to think of ourselves as his servants who attend to his Word. We obey him according to his command and we imitate him in the way that he instructed. As we seek to imitate him it is ever with the consciousness that it is he who has saved us and not we ourselves—not even in cooperation with grace. Our imitation is in recognition of the categorical distinction between Christ and Christian, Savior and saved.


1. Thomas Adams, A Commentary Or, Exposition Upon The Divine Second Epistle General Written By…St. Peter (1633), 14.

2. Samuel Rutherford, The Covenant of Life Opened, 285.

3. Thomas Cartwright, A Confutation Of The Rhemists Translation, Glosses And Annotations On The New Testament, 734.

4. William Perkins, An Exposition Of The Apostles’ Creed, 243–44.

5. Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man: Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity, trans. William Crookshank, vol. 2 (London: T. Tegg & Son, 1837), 44–45.